Medical staff holds swabs for rapid COVID-19 tests at a high school in Rome, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

Medical staff holds swabs for rapid COVID-19 tests at a high school in Rome, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

VIDEO: Ottawa unveils guidelines, deal for rapid COVID-19 tests as calls for approval mount

Focus is on antigen tests, which are similar to a pregnancy test when it comes to speed, ease of use

The Liberal government pushed back against criticism over a lack of rapid tests for COVID-19 on Tuesday as it unveiled a deal to buy millions of such devices from a U.S. company — whenever Health Canada approves them.

Canadians across the country have been forced to wait days to find out if they are infected after being tested for COVID-19, which Canada’s chief public health officer acknowledged Tuesday as a reason for concern.

“It absolutely is worrisome because if you have a significant backlog and people don’t get their test results for a number of days, you’ve now lost time for doing the contact tracing,” Tam said at a media briefing in Ottawa.

“That can accelerate the spread. So it is something we really must all work together and try to reduce as quickly as possible.”

That came as the number of positive cases across Canada continued to increase, with more than 500 in Ontario and nearly 800 in Quebec alone. Authorities in Montreal and Quebec City went to their highest alert level while Ontario Premier Doug Ford faced calls for a tightening of COVID-19 restrictions.

Rapid tests that can produce results in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and even homes have come to be seen as one way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the world waits for a vaccine.

While Health Canada approved one test last week that doesn’t need a lab, the device still needs about 90 minutes for a result and involves a portable unit. The focus for many has instead been on what are called antigen tests, which have been described as similar to a pregnancy test when it comes to speed and ease of use.

Other countries have already approved rapid antigen tests, with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday announcing plans to buy and distribute 150 million units of one rapid test in the country. The World Health Organization has also reached an agreement to supply 120 million tests to developing countries.

Yet the number of approved antigen tests in Canada currently sits at zero, with officials warning that approving a device that does not produce accurate results can actually spread of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended federal regulators on Tuesday as the Conservatives blasted the government for the lack of antigen tests and called on the Liberals to step up their efforts.

“Medical experts will make the determinations that are best for Canadians,” Trudeau told reporters after co-hosting a United Nations conference to raise money for COVID-19 relief efforts in developing countries.

“On the political side, as much as we’d love to see those tests as quickly as possible, we’re not going to tell our scientists how to do their job and do that work.”

ALSO READ: Federal child-care plan could help Canada rebound from COVID-induced economic crisis

Even as Trudeau defended the lack of tests, Health Canada was unveiling its first-ever guidelines for companies hoping to get their antigen devices approved by the regulator. The federal procurement minister also announced a deal to purchase 7.9 million such tests once they are sanctioned.

The new guidelines state that a device must be at least 80 per cent accurate to be authorized, reflecting concerns that inaccuracies — particularly false negatives — can lead to the further spread of COVID-19. That includes five antigen tests currently under review.

Asked why the guidelines were only being published now when the rush to develop and approve a rapid antigen test has been underway for months, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Supriya Sharma, indicated the standard was already being applied.

“We’ve had companies come in with submissions,” she said.

“We’ve been looking at those submissions, we’ve been working with them on a case-by-case basis as we go through that process. This is a way to sort of standardize that, systemize it and put it out in a guidance document where it’s publicly available.”

Sharma went on to describe the effort to approve a rapid antigen test in Canada as one of the regulator’s top priorities. She suggested one of the reasons some devices have been approved elsewhere but not here is because the companies behind them have not submitted them to Health Canada.

“You have to have a company that has a willingness to submit to Canada, but most importantly, has the capacity to produce those devices,” Sharma said. “As soon as we’re aware of a company that may be manufacturing a device and marketing it internationally … we do have staff that would reach out.”

As Ottawa was inking deals for vaccine doses ahead of the inevitable global rush that will accompany the successful development of an inoculation, Procurement Minister Anita Anand on Tuesday announced a deal with U.S. firm Abbott Laboratories for 7.9 million yet-to-be-approved antigen tests.

Sharma could not say when the Abbott test, or any others currently under review by Health Canada, will be approved. The test was conditionally approved in the U.S. earlier this year before concerns were raised about its accuracy. The Food and Drug Administration reissued its approval this month.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner accused the Liberals of having been asleep at the wheel while other countries rushed to get rapid tests into the field.

She called on Health Minister Patty Hajdu to personally lead Canada’s efforts to get devices into the approval process.

“She should be out actively looking for these types of technologies and proactively getting them into the review process,” Rempel Garner said

“At a time when every country in the world is proactively trying to acquire and develop these technologies to protect their people, Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is content to say: ‘We’re letting them come to us.’ Our allies are winning in this race for supplies.”

— With files from Mia Rabson and Mike Blanchfield

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sharon McNeill (right) was among the first batch of residents to pick up free seeds and seedlings from Ali Rivers, Central Saanich’s climate action specialist, during Thursday’s Seed Giveaway. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Central Saanich plants seeds in the fight against climate change

Seed Giveaway promotes environmental stewardship

This rendering shows the proposed warehouse for lands under the authority of the Victoria Airport Authority near a Sidney residential neighbourhood. (York Reality/Submitted).
Chamber of Commerce promises Sidney warehouse proposal will deliver jobs

Nearby resident said project’s benefits will be short-lived

Habitat Acquisition Trust has received provincial funding to help restore Garry oak ecosystems on southern Vancouver Island. (Photo by Jeremy da Silva)
Central Saanich park among sites for local Garry oak restoration projects

Habitat Acquisition Trust received $140,000 in funding for 12 projects

Work is progressing on the new student housing building at the University of Victoria. The building will be home to 398 students when complete in September 2022. (Photo courtesy of UVic)
VIDEO: Mass timber installation begins at UVic student housing project

Green technology plays key role in building that will be home to 398 University of Victoria students

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Amazon is pausing its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Amazon Prime Day halted in Canada due to COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses

The postponement of the event was put in place to protect the health and safety of employees and customers, the company says

At this Highway 3 check point, police officers will be asking for identification from drivers, documentation regarding the driver’s name and address, and the purpose for the driver’s travel. (RCMP)
No fines handed out at 1st COVID-19 roadblock as checks move across B.C.

Cpl. Chris Manseau says a total of 127 vehicles were stopped at a roadblock in the Manning Park area

A spectator looks on as the Olympic Caldron is relit in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Small majority of B.C. residents in favour of a Vancouver 2030 Olympic bid: survey

A new survey shows a split over the possibility of public money being spent to organize and host the winter games

Jasmine Francoeur from Comox is an aviation technician for the Snowbirds air demonstration team. Photo by Canadian Forces/submitted
Island woman’s career comes full circle as she flies home with the Snowbirds

Jasmine Francoeur: “To fly out here, fly into my hometown, it’s very special and I feel very lucky”

Junior A team Coquitlam Express is offering all Tri-City residents who get vaccinated against COVID-19 a free ticket to one of their games. (Facebook/Coquitlam Express)
B.C. hockey team offering free tickets to hometown fans who get the COVID-19 vaccine

‘We know the only way to get fans back is people getting vaccinated,’ says Express’ general manager Tali Campbell

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon speaks in the B.C. legislature, describing work underway to make a small business and tourism aid package less restrictive, Dec. 10, 2020. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s latest COVID-19 restrictions cost thousands of service jobs

Part-time workers set back again by spike in virus spread

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Leaked report shows detailed B.C. COVID-19 data not being released to public

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Most Read