A consortium of 12 large Canadian companies, using rapid antigen tests to screen employees for COVID-19, is now looking to ramp up the program, and is hoping to begin doubling the number of businesses involved every couple of weeks.
“If we don’t scale it very quickly, we’ve missed our moment, wasted the tool,” Rogers Communications Inc.’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Satok, said on Wednesday during an online panel discussion organized by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
The pilot project, which is being overseen by the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) at the University of Toronto, is evaluating the effectiveness of rapid testing in workplaces. Companies began administering tests in January. The consortium includes companies such as Air Canada, the Bank of Nova Scotia, Loblaws, Magna International and Suncor.
Three of the companies have already moved beyond the pilot phase and are beginning to test thousands of employees twice a week, Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said during the online panel. One company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, recently made the tests mandatory for all employees, third-party contractors and members of the media entering Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Companies have found less resistance to the screenings among employees than expected, Ms. Stein said.
The rapid tests are different from the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that generate results in one or two days. The antigen tests provide results within 15 minutes, and are designed to screen people who are showing no symptoms but may be carrying the coronavirus into a workplace setting.
Public-health experts have urged the provinces to speed up the rollout of rapid testing in workplaces, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the antigen tests result in more false negatives than the PCR variety. The rapid tests must be part of a larger strategy to battle COVID-19, Ms. Stein said, that also includes protective measures such as masks, handwashing and physical distancing, as well as vaccinations as Canada increases its supply of vaccines.
“We can’t think of screening or testing as a single magic bullet here,” she said. “… We’re talking here about multiple levels of protection. … Once we get that system in place, I think we will be able to see really swift progress in opening up some of the businesses that have been closed for too long.”
By the end of the month, the consortium will be publishing online a “how-to playbook” including protocols for workplace rapid testing. It is also building a data system for companies to upload the results of their tests, comparing them with other businesses in their own province and elsewhere in Canada. That should be ready in two to three weeks, and Ms. Stein said it will meet privacy and cybersecurity standards for health data.
Existing members of the consortium will help to mentor other businesses as they come on board. Shoppers Drug Mart president Jeff Leger said that pharmacies are prepared to assist small- and medium-sized businesses that do not have the same resources to conduct their own tests.
“I hope that over time, as we continue to innovate around the testing … an important thing is driving to efficiency,” Mr. Leger said. “How do we reduce the cost? How do we make this ubiquitous?”
Ms. Stein added that part of the consortium’s purpose was to support a public sector that is “overwhelmed” in managing the pandemic.
She encouraged other businesses who want to be involved in the program to get in touch through the CDL website.
“The more the private sector indicates interest in doing this, the quicker governments will move,” she said.
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