Feds to buy 7.9 million rapid COVID-19 tests if approved, as new daily cases mirror April peak
OTTAWA -- The federal government has signed a new deal to buy 7.9 million rapid point-of-care nasal swab COVID-19 tests pending Health Canada approval to help provinces eventually speed up testing capacity, as Canada's new daily case counts have increased to the point that they are on par with the daily peak of new cases seen in April.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says that she's concerned about the rate of new cases, but defended not calling for similar broad shutdowns as were in place in the spring.
"The fact that cases are now at the same level as during the initial peak is worrisome," Tam said on Tuesday. "At the same time there are clear differences in the epidemiology, with younger age groups predominating among cases. And we are testing and detecting more."
As of midday Tuesday there were nearly 14,000 active COVID-19 cases Canada-wide, with hundreds of new cases being reported in Ontario and Quebec.
The new deal to potentially procure nearly 8 million tests and 3,800 test analyzing devices from Abbott Rapid Diagnostics comes amid considerable pressure for the federal government to provide a faster form of testing to address what's become hours-long lineups and days-long waits for results in some cities.
"Testing and tracing are more important than ever," said Procurement Minister Anita Anand, who said these new tests can deliver results in approximately 15 minutes.
"These rapid tests will aid in meeting the urgent demand from provinces and territories to test Canadians and reduce wait times for results, which is key to reducing the spread of the virus,” Anand said.
On Tuesday, the federal government published new advice for companies looking to get Health Canada approval for rapid COVID-19 tests, with officials expressing caution about the faster testing options still not being effective enough to be cleared for use in Canada despite them already being implemented in other countries.
“Health Canada is reviewing a range of simpler to use and faster tests. As the regulator, Health Canada is responsible for ensuring the safety, effectiveness, and quality of all tests, which is crucial for disease management,” said Tam. “For example, an underperforming test could result in a high number of false negative results, where people think they aren't infected when they are, leading to unintentional exposures. This is why the review process is so important, and why no corners can be cut.”
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that to date, 36 COVID-19 test systems have been approved, including two that can be used at point-of-care. The Abbott test is one of approximately a dozen rapid tests awaiting approval by Canada’s federal health agency. Federal officials have not received any requests to review at-home test kits, but are encouraging their producers to apply to be approved in Canada.
Hajdu said that Health Canada is aiming to review tests and grant approvals within 40 days of an application.
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said the state of approvals on speedier tests in Canada is “ridiculous,” and pointed to the use of similar quick tests in other countries.
“Today we still have no clarity on the types of tests or when they will be widely available to Canadians. We still have no delivery or distribution date, even though the tests are in are in use in other parts of the world, and we don't know where Canada stands on the list of actually getting these supplies, given their delay,” she said.
“Why has it taken our country so long to get this done? How many schools have had to close because we didn't have this capability? How many hours were lost his working parents had to stand in line for a test?” Rempel Garner said. “We know that testing is a key tool to get our country back to work and to fight this pandemic.
AVOIDING 'BLANKET' SHUTDOWNS
Meanwhile, as the pandemic continues to worsen, Tam faced questions about why federal health officials aren’t advocating for widespread shutdowns or returns to earlier stages of economic reopening with only essential businesses and services open.
In response, Tam said that while some hotspots are scaling back what's allowed to be open, taking a "blanket approach" might not be the best to control the once again accelerating spread of the virus.
"I think the difference is that at that time there was a lot of unknowns about the virus… but now we know a bit more, and the concept with the public health offices is that we don't want to apply a just broad based, blanket approach to everywhere in Canada, but use the data that we have to try and hone in on those hotspots," Tam said. "I think public health is trying to do it in a more focused fashion."
Canadians, though, are being advised to cut down on their non-essential social activities in an effort to slow down the transmission of cases and once again flatten the epidemic curve.
"Things have escalated quickly, and they can escalate further, unless we all work together to slow the spread of the virus," said Tam.