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The end of COVID-19 rapid testing? What Ottawa’s call to scrap shipments means

Click to play video: 'Ottawa no longer shipping COVID-19 rapid tests'
Ottawa no longer shipping COVID-19 rapid tests
WATCH: Almost three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say testing for the coronavirus is becoming less common, and less relevant, in Canada. The federal government scrapped pre-arrival PCR test requirements for travellers last February. As Katherine Ward reports, now it is ending new shipments of rapid antigen tests to provinces and territories. – Mar 2, 2023

Almost three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, testing for the coronavirus is becoming less common, and less relevant, in Canada, experts say.

The federal government scrapped pre-arrival PCR test requirements for travellers last February. Now it is ending new shipments of rapid antigen tests to provinces and territories.

Supply is not an issue as Ottawa and provincial health authorities have millions of rapid tests in their stockpile. However, demand appears to be waning.

Click to play video: 'First at-home combination test for COVID and flu approved in U.S.'
First at-home combination test for COVID and flu approved in U.S.

“It’s not surprising, just given the fact that we are starting to see this gradual transition out of the pandemic into a little bit more of normal life,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

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“So it may be that a year from now or so, the rapid test may not be necessarily useful,” he told Global News.

As the virus has mutated over time, the emergence of new variants has also reduced the sensitivity of the antigen tests, said Evans.

Click to play video: 'Quebec pharmacists set to stop handing out free COVID-19 rapid tests in March'
Quebec pharmacists set to stop handing out free COVID-19 rapid tests in March

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said in her opinion, people are using rapid antigen tests less because there is no longer a public health strategy to deal with COVID-19.

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“Right now, there is no strategy. We are not looking at numbers. We don’t know how much COVID is out there,” she told The Canadian Press in an interview.

Money is another factor to consider, as “these tests are not cheap,” said Evans, so there might be less of an appetite from the government to continue picking up the cost for a tool that was not relied upon to paint a picture of the pandemic in the first place.

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Instead, PCR testing done in labs has helped track COVID-19 case numbers and positivity rates in the community, he said.

Ottawa has ordered more than 811 million rapid tests since the beginning of the pandemic with a price tag of about $5 billion. About 680 million of those went to provinces and territories.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 rapid tests to continue to be available free of charge in Ontario through end of year: Moore'
COVID-19 rapid tests to continue to be available free of charge in Ontario through end of year: Moore

So far, the provinces have been providing these tests for free at pharmacies, grocery checkouts and other locations.

If people end up having to buy them, Evans suspects most won’t be keen on spending out of their pocket.

Health Canada said the decision to end shipments at the end of January was made in collaboration with provinces and territories, as the regions have enough supply.

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At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid antigen tests were an essential go-to for many Canadians.

Cutting back on supply might make it difficult for people who want to continue testing themselves, said Evans.

“It’s going to be really challenging without the rapid test for many people who have relied on them to really figure out if the symptoms they’re having of a respiratory tract infection are due to COVID or just due to some other virus,” he said.

There is also a risk of further spread of COVID, since viral shedding can occur up to seven days after COVID-19 symptoms develop, Evans said.

“So not knowing whether you have COVID or not, because you no longer have a rapid test to check, that leaves you kind of in this idea that maybe you’re going to be going back (to work) a little bit earlier.”

Are expired rapid tests safe to use?

According to Health Canada, there are 90 million rapid tests in the federal inventory, but 6.5 million of those will expire this year. The rest expire within two years.

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Once these tests go beyond their expiry date, accuracy becomes questionable, Evans said.

He said antigen tests can still be safely used one or two months after their expiration, but the reliability is going to diminish the further away one gets from the expiry date on the package.

Anyone with expired boxes lying around the house should dispose of them.

There is nothing in the rapid antigen tests that is particularly biologically hazardous, especially if they have never been used, said Evans.

And most pharmacies, clinics and hospitals are well equipped with biological waste containers so they should be able to take care of any large lots of expired tests that need disposal.

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