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

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

East Central Express also offers wedding or event shuttle services and tours of the Rocky Mountains. Photo courtesy of East Central Express.
On-demand bus service will now stop in Lacombe

As the winter months arrive, Rob Duncan expects demand for his bus and taxi services to grow

The influenza vaccine will be available at no cost starting Monday in Alberta. “The more that we can avoid influenza-related tests, emergency visits and hospitalizations, the stronger our system will be to support those with COVID-19 and all other health needs," says Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Hinshaw urges Albertans to get flu shot as COVID cases jump by 332

Alberta’s central zone now has 132 active COVID-19 cases

A new biorefinery that will turn organic waste into natural energy was announced in Lacombe on Oct. 15. From left to right: Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta, Grant Creasey, Mayor of the City of Lacombe, Ron Orr, MLA for Lacombe-Ponoka, Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks and Chris Thrall, President and CEO of BioRefinex Canada Inc. (Photo Courtesey of The City of Lacombe)
Lacombe to become world’s first site for a new type of clean energy facility

A biorefinery will be built in 2021 creating temporary and full-time jobs, the province announced.

In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)
‘First guys out:’ Western Canadian air tanker fleet busy despite drop in wildfires

CEO believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years as people live closer to where they start

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Executive Director of Agape Kate Halas (left) receives $1000 from Sgt. Eric Christensen (right) on behalf of Agape. Photo/ Shaela Dansereau.
Former Wetaskiwin Peace Officer wins provincial award; gives back to Wetaskiwin community

Eric Christensen has won the Alberta Association of Community Peace Officers Award of Excellence.

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Canadian couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Employee Sophia Lovink shows off a bag of merchandise in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Canada gets C-average grade on 2nd year of cannabis legalization

Cannabis Council of Canada releases report card on federal government and legalization

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States are being extended until at least Nov. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Non-essential travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border extended to at least Nov. 21

The restrictions do not apply to those providing essential services in either country

(The Canadian Perss)
Banff wolves have lower survival rate due to hunting, trapping outside park boundary

Researchers looked at 72 radio-collared wolves in the national park from 1987 to August 2019

Most Read