Rapid COVID-19 screening tests are sitting in Canadian warehouses. Governments and businesses need to collaborate to put them to use

by Hon. John Manley – Distinguished Lifetime Member and Former President and Chief Executive Officer, Business Council of Canada

Written by the Hon. John Manley, published in The Globe and Mail

Canadians are tired.

We have endured almost a year of lockdowns, red zones, yellow zones, physical distancing, masks and school closings. More than 20,000 Canadians have died, many more have suffered from the symptoms of COVID-19 and the price being paid as other necessary medical treatments are delayed is impossible to calculate. The road to recovery of our economy and our mental health is unclear. We have no playbook for what is happening, at home or abroad. “Tired” hardly captures what Canadians are feeling.

Last fall, Health Canada began approving point-of-care antigen tests, so called because they can be analyzed outside a laboratory, can screen for COVID-19 within 15 to45 minutes and are typically much cheaper than laboratory-based tests. This set the stage for the ability to have mass screening accessible to the general population.

As of last November, the government of Canada had signed contracts to buy 38 million rapid point-of-care tests. According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 19 million rapid screening kits have been delivered to provincial health authorities.

These rapid tests are not as accurate as conventional laboratory-based tests. But they are often capable of identifying asymptomatic people who may be infected with COVID and can infect others – even though the people tested don’t know they are sick. Every time someone who has no symptoms screens positive and is confirmed with a PCR test that diagnoses the disease, that person can isolate at home. Every time they do, they have broken the chain of transmission. And every time we break the chain of transmission, we reduce the impact of COVID on our society and our economy. We are all safer.

We have known this since November. But the screens are still in federal and provincial warehouses. How do we get the rapid screens out of the warehouses and into the hands of those who can use them in schools, long-term care homes and workplaces?

The Industry Roundtable, which represents large and small business, has advocated for wide-scale rapid antigen screening since the group began meeting in November, 2020. Data presented to the roundtable in late 2020 indicated that daily screening of 3 per cent of the population would have positive impact on the health care system. The data also indicate that 25 per centof those screens should be done in workplaces that are critical to the country’s economy. This level of screening will reduce the burden on an already strained health care system.

To get these screens out of the warehouses simply requires collaboration between the private sector and government at all levels.

Canadian businesses are positioned to implement screening in communities large and small. By identifying potential infections in workplaces, businesses can help to break chains of transmissions that have had such a devastating impact on our communities and on our economy.

Businesses can train staff to administer tests at worksites, thus reducing barriers to using tests, while developing guidelines for asymptomatic testing and pursuing access to new and easier technology that can support home screening. The Creative Destruction Lab Rapid Screen Consortium (CDL RSC), created out of the University of Toronto, has led the way in showing how businesses across the country can make rapid antigen screening work in workplaces.

Rapid testing can also enhance the confidence of people who are currently working from home to return to the office. This would not only reinvigorate the workplace but would also bring back life to the many city centres that have been deserted as a result of COVID-19.

Vaccines are the ultimate solution, but they are not a silver bullet. Even after Canadians have been vaccinated, we will need masks, physical distancing and rapid testing until the virus loses its grip. Getting rapid tests out of warehouses and into the hands of those who can use them is an important tool in the public-health tool kit.