OTTAWA - The federal government is “lining up advance deals” to buy rapid tests for COVID-19 so as soon as the technology is approved for use in Canada, it can be put to work, says Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
But Health Canada, which has to approve the tests, won't say anything about when that approval might come, and Freeland said it would be wrong for politicians to influence the process.
“We are seeing interference and pressure on regulators around the world and I think we can all see the very dangerous consequences of that kind of an approach,” she said. “So that will not be the approach our government takes.”
The opposition Conservatives were less than impressed by her promise, pointing out that the government claimed in March that rapid testing was a top priority.
“Half a year and half a trillion dollars later Canadian families still have to wait in line for hours, sometimes days, to get tested,” said deputy Conservative leader Candice Bergen in the House of Commons Thursday.
She said many people can't afford to take days off work to wait for tests.
Online chat rooms and social media groups are awash in questions and complaints from Canadians struggling to get tested for the virus that causes COVID-19. Those who do get through a testing line are reporting waits of up to a week to get results because labs are so backed up.
Health Canada regulates both the sale and importation of any medical devices, tests or treatments for COVID-19. It has already approved nearly three dozen different tests to diagnose it, but all of them use either a swab from the back of the nose and throat, or a saliva sample, and have to be processed in a lab.
Once the test is run it takes several hours to get results but sending those results back to a patient usually takes more than a day.
Rapid tests can produce results in as little as five minutes, right in the same spot where the throat sample, blood sample or saliva sample is collected. They aren't considered to be as accurate as the genetic tests, but several countries have approved them, including Japan and the United States.
Some Canadian epidemiologists argue they would be good as surveillance tools to get tests done quickly on people who have symptoms of COVID-19 or possible exposures to known cases. If a rapid test comes up positive it can then be confirmed by the more reliable molecular version.
At least 14 rapid devices are under review by Health Canada but the department's spokesman says he cannot comment on the status of the applications during the scientific assessment process.
The department does have an online list of devices for which it has received applications, including the name of the device, the manufacturer, and the type of test. All are show as “under review” or their entries say Health Canada is awaiting more information.
One rapid test was approved in May but subsequently pulled back after field testing didn't go as hoped.
Last week Health Minister Patty Hajdu said regulators aren't yet confident the rapid tests are accurate enough to approve.
Freeland said Thursday she is keenly aware that getting people tested quickly, and having their potential contacts traced and tested quickly, is critical to keeping the pandemic in check.
“I am pretty sure that I can say that there is no one in Canada who is more enthusiastic about the prospect of getting rapid tests in our country and no one who feels more urgently the need for them,” Freeland said at a news conference Thursday morning.
“We are lining up in advance deals to buy the technologies, the tests, the vaccines, the medicines that will support Canadians. So the minute our regulators finish doing their very important work and get to the stage where they can say to us yes, this is safe and healthy for Canadians, our government is going to be ready to jump in and buy these medicines and technologies for our country.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2020.