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Tom Bellman, director of user experience for FIO Corporation, training health care workers at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Feb. 23, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The operator of Toronto Pearson International Airport is expanding its COVID-19 monitoring with the addition of workplace testing and will conduct a study comparing the efficacy of the two main types of diagnoses.

Greater Toronto Airports Authority, beginning March 1, will offer rapid polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests to asymptomatic people who work at Canada’s busiest airport, using one of two newly built labs to provide results within two hours. Additionally, the airport is launching a voluntary 10-week study in which as many as 750 employees will take an antigen test three times a week, with any positive results to be confirmed with the more accurate PCR tests.

A comparison of the results will help demonstrate if the less expensive antigen test is a suitable way to check for the coronavirus in a busy commercial setting, said Dwayne Macintosh, the airport’s director of corporate safety and security.

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About 700 tests a day will be available for $45 to departing passengers, who must book in advance, Mr. Macintosh said.

The program is funded by a $5.2-million grant from the federal government’s National Research Council Canada. The project, with labs at two terminals, will employ 30 to 40 nurses, nurse practitioners and other medical professionals.

Mr. Macintosh said the rapid PCR tests will allow the airport’s employees to avoid time off work booking a test and awaiting results, a process that can take several days. The results are available in two hours.

“They may not be at work. They may not be getting paid, but they are also concerned, and certainly their families [are] as well,” Mr. Macintosh said. “We wanted to put in some testing at the airport that would allow us to turn results back to an employee very quickly so they can make sure that they are protected, their families are protected, their colleagues are protected and they can get back to work, if possible.”

The rapid PCR tests are available to any employee of the 400 companies at the airport. About 50,000 people worked at Pearson before the pandemic devastated the aviation industry. About 15,000 are there now.

The PCR test detects the virus’s genetic material and is highly accurate but expensive, costing about $100, and generally slow to produce results.

Antigen tests cost as little as $6 and detect protein fragments, but are known to be inaccurate.

“What we are hoping to prove here is using cheap, cheerful tests such as antigen tests in a general population … in work forces or the general populace that we can prove that there is more COVID out there, and hopefully we can create a safer environment for our workers,” Mr. Macintosh said.

International passengers are required to take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding a flight to Canada, and to take a PCR test on arrival. They must then wait in a hotel for their results, at their own expense.

The measures are in addition to domestic travel restrictions, halted flights to sun destinations and warnings to avoid all travel – all intended to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

Airline traffic plunged by 57 per cent in January, from the same month a year earlier, said NAV Canada, which operates the air traffic control system for Canada and the North Atlantic.

The airline industry says airport testing combined with shorter quarantines, where appropriate, and reduced travel restrictions are needed to safely reopen aviation ahead of widespread vaccination.

George Dimitroff, of aviation consultancy Cirium, said the key to an effective airport testing system is standard antigen tests at either end of the flight. Although the PCR tests are more accurate, the £60 ($106) price in some countries of a test can double the cost of an airfare.

“PCR is obviously more accurate but it’s also slower,” Mr. Dimitroff said. “The key is being able to test at the airport before you fly and I think antigen [tests] are the way to do that. The way to reduce the chance of inaccurate test results is to test again on arrival in the other country.

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