Here’s how rapid antigen tests could help curb coronavirus, according to officials

Newly approved rapid tests will be pivotal in helping health authorities rein in rising novel coronavirus numbers in Canada, the country’s deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said Tuesday.

The new Panbio COVID-19 Antigen rapid test, which is the first of its kind to be authorized in Canada, can be analyzed on-site without additional equipment or a laboratory setting, and can produce results within 20 minutes.

While it may not be as accurate as the “gold standard” real-time PCR test, which are done in medical labs, Njoo said it can be a complement to a comprehensive testing strategy and allow health-care workers to “save the PCR test for those where you actually have sick people and you need to get the diagnosis right.”

Antigen tests work by detecting specific proteins found on the surface of the virus, as opposed to searching for the virus itself.

Remote work sites and crowded workplaces like meat-packing facilities will benefit from antigen testing, Njoo said, adding that it would make it easier to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus and contact trace those who may have been exposed.

“There’s lots of other possibilities in certain outbreak settings where you need to at least start the rapid public health action,” he said.

“You could be using the rapid antigen test to quickly identify those who might have been exposed and maybe are actually infected with the virus.”

Anita Anand, minister of public services and procurement, also announced Tuesday that Canada signed an agreement to purchase up to 20.5 million of the antigen rapid tests.

To date, the Canadian government has approved three other producers who have developed successful rapid point-of-care tests for COVID-19.

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In a release, Public Services and Procurement Canada said that includes Abbott Rapid Diagnostics, which will supply up to 7.9 million ID NOW rapid tests in addition to the Panbio COVID-19 Antigen rapid tests. Biomérieux Canada “will supply up to 699,750 test kits,” while Inter Medico will supply “up to 1.2 million GeneXpert rapid tests,” the release said.

“In addition, the federal government has procured enough swabs, re-agent and other materials to conduct 200,000 tests per day in Canada for at least the remainder of the year,” Anand said, adding the country was on track to buy more rapid tests in the coming weeks.

The procurement minister said the point-of-care tests offered part of a solution to persistent challenges faced by the government to scale up laboratory capacity to process the increasing number of samples and avoid backlogs.

“Testing is a key pillar of Canada’s response to COVID-19 and that’s why Health Canada has prioritized the review of all types of COVID-19 tests. These antigens tests will have a role to play in avoiding large cluster outbreaks, when results are needed quickly to avoid further spread of the virus,” Anand said.

The news comes as Canada struggles to control rising case numbers, with several regions already undergoing a second wave of the virus.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday around 71,000 people are currently being tested in Canada each day, with 2.5 per cent of the population testing positive.

On average, she said 1,951 new cases were being reported daily within the last seven days, noting an “upward trend” in the number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19. Tam said an average of 613 people were hospitalized from the virus on any given day with the last week, with 16 deaths being reported daily.

On Monday, she said 80 per cent of new cases were coming from Quebec and Ontario, the two provinces hit hardest by the pandemic.

In Toronto, one of Ontario’s most densely populated cities, Njoo confirmed more than 10 per cent of tests taken were coming back positive in certain pockets, indicating high levels of community transmission.

Both health minister Patty Hajdu and Njoo called the number “alarming,” with the deputy chief public health officer saying public health authorities needed to take “whatever steps are necessary” to increase contact tracing, identify high-risk settings and reduce transmission.

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