OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole slammed the federal Liberal government Thursday for failing to issue an emergency approval for rapid COVID-19 tests after he and his family joined a growing list of Canadians who have been turned away after waiting hours at overburdened testing centres.
O’Toole, his wife Rebecca, and their children, Mollie and Jack, were luckier than most: After being unable to get tested Wednesday in Ottawa, they were tested Thursday morning through a new program that offers quick access to privately administered COVID-19 tests for members of Parliament.
But O’Toole said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has to explain to Canadians how seven months into a pandemic, Canada has not followed the United States and approved rapid test kits that can give results in minutes rather than hours.
“The Trudeau Liberals have created this mess by refusing to approve other testing methods — despite all our allies having, for months, multiple tests including much faster and less invasive methods,” said O’Toole in a written statement.
“I stand with the thousands of Canadian families who are waiting in lines today for tests.”
Demand for testing has soared in the last week, as kids returned to school, and testing clinics across the country are struggling to keep up. In Ottawa, some people reported waiting as long as six hours to be tested, while others, like the O’Tooles, waited for hours without ever getting in.
The O’Tooles are in isolation awaiting test results after one of his staff members, with whom he had been travelling, tested positive for COVID-19 this week.
O’Toole’s family was offered an appointment by Ottawa Public Health for tests on Friday, but the House of Commons was able to arrange them a day earlier instead.
House of Commons spokeswoman Heather Bradley said that since March MPs have had access to an on-call physician by phone, for any COVID-19 concerns, and now that physician can also arrange COVID-19 tests.
“As the pandemic has evolved, the house administration has added additional services to cover the specific needs of members, including, on an exceptional basis, testing for COVID-19,” said Bradley.
Testing is done privately and paid for by the House of Commons.
Health Canada has only approved molecular tests for COVID-19, which look for the genetic material of the novel coronavirus. Nasal swabs taken at test sites must be sent to a lab and tests take up to 24 hours to get a result, not including the travel time to a lab or time to get the result entered into a computer and transmitted.
Rapid tests that look for the virus’s antigens — molecules that attach to the outside of a virus and trigger the body’s immune response — can be completed without going to a lab and in as little as 15 minutes.
Antigen tests are less accurate than molecular tests and more often deliver false-negative results.
But being able to quickly test people with symptoms or a known exposure to COVID-19 is critical to controlling the pandemic. If it takes several days to get test results, that means it takes longer to identify possible contacts of a positive patient and for those people to get tests. During that whole time they could be spreading the virus around and not know it.
Health Canada is reviewing at least six antigen tests, with four listed as “under review” and two waiting for more information from the companies involved. Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Wednesday the government won’t compromise safety and effectiveness for speed.
“The holdup is the technology has not accelerated to the point where we have received a test for approval that has an accuracy to the degree that we believe it is prudent to allow it into the Canadian market,” she said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency approvals for at three antigen tests.
Health Canada approved one antigen test in May but that was subsequently recalled when Health Canada determined it wasn’t performing well in the field.
Hajdu said having tests that aren’t accurate can make things worse.
“Can you imagine a scenario where people could purchase a rapid test in a pharmacy, let’s say, and it’s only 50 per cent accurate?” she asked. “We’re just not there yet. We have not had a test submitted to Health Canada for approval yet that satisfies the regulator’s concerns around accuracy.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2020.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press