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A man displays his COVID-19 rapid test kit after receiving it at a pharmacy in Montreal, Dec. 20, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Before the run on rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 erupted worldwide, Jonathan Mesiano-Crookston spent nearly $400 to buy a box of 25 kits for his family. The price seemed high to him, back in the pre-Omicron days. But now he feels that paying $15 per test was a real bargain.

“I remember thinking, ‘It’s not going to be everyone who can afford this,’” said Mr. Mesiano-Crookston, a lawyer in Toronto. The at-home tests, which he bought in October, have given him peace of mind about the health of his two children. People are now waiting hours in line for the same kits, he pointed out.

Demand for diagnostic tools has crested and collapsed in conjunction with the waves of the pandemic. Now, with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 setting daily infection records, rapid-testing kits – once spurned by public-health policy makers because they are considered less accurate than lab tests – are suddenly the hottest of hot commodities. For now, they can still be purchased from stores, and online. But shipment delays are already happening, and future supplies are not assured. Governments that buy the tests to give them away as a public good say rationing is needed.

Ontario “currently has a limited supply of rapid antigen tests – which is true around the globe,” Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said in a news conference this week.

He later told the CP24 news channel that Ontario won’t be in a position to hand out new shipments of kits to the public until late January, at earliest. “There’s a global issue on getting these R.A.T.s,” Dr. Moore said. “Right now we need them to protect our workplaces in long-term care, in cancer wards, in transplant centres.”

Vaccinations – while highly effective at keeping people out of hospitals – are no longer regarded as a tool to contain spread, because people who have been inoculated are getting infected with Omicron in large numbers. Schools, workplaces and government agencies are now preparing for testing to assume heightened importance, even as supplies of tests grow scant.

Officials in Ontario and elsewhere have started restricting the public’s access to polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) testing, which is more precise and more resource-intensive than rapid testing. Positive results from rapid-test kits are not reported in official COVID-19 case counts. And some experts contend that rapid tests are not very good at detecting Omicron.

Despite the limitations of at-home tests, governments and other institutions are now seeking to buy them in bulk. Manufacturers are building factories just to keep up with heightened demand. And world leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden are being asked questions about botched procurements. “What happened was the Omicron virus spread more rapidly than anyone thought,” Mr. Biden told reporters this month, as he faced criticism. He has announced plans to acquire half a billion rapid-test kits for Americans.

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In Canada, a patchwork of federal-provincial policy initiatives exist to funnel rapid tests to people who want or need them. Health Canada’s latest statistics show that it has shipped nearly 100 million kits to provincial and territorial governments.

But the regional disparities are stark. Some provinces have embraced rapid tests, and others have hedged their bets.

For example, more than 10 million of these federally acquired kits have landed in Saskatchewan, a province with just over one million of Canada’s 38 million people.

In a press conference this week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and his top health officials said this stockpile is allowing them to keep distributing free tests to the public. They explained that they requisitioned the rapid-test kits from Ottawa beginning in the fall, when other provinces were not asking for them.

Compare that with British Columbia. Health Canada’s statistics show that the province’s five million residents have received only 3.4 million federally procured kits – just two kits for every three people.

Both B.C.’s and Saskatchewan’s governments have said they are banking on big shipments from Ottawa and other sources in the weeks ahead.

Spokespeople for two federal departments – Health Canada and Public Services and Procurement Canada – told The Globe and Mail they could not immediately respond to questions about the federal supply and distribution of rapid antigen tests.

One of Canada’s key suppliers says it’s shipping them briskly, but is struggling to keep up with demand. “We’re sending them out as fast as we can make them,” said John Koval, a spokesperson for Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories. The company manufactures kits under the Panbio brand.

Mr. Koval said the company is running its manufacturing facilities 24 hours a day and is delivering tens of millions of kits to Canada.

The continuing spread of Omicron will create other bottlenecks. An increasing array of government agencies – not just health care organizations, but also police, fire services and paramedics – want increased access to routine testing.

Those agencies are at risk of huge staffing shortages, because their employees work with the public and can’t hide from Omicron. The Toronto Police Service, for instance, “continues to plan for the possibility that upwards of 40 per cent of members may be impacted by the pandemic,” spokesperson Meaghan Gray said.

The City of Toronto announced midweek that it will be trying to secure more rapid tests for police and other first responders. But the municipal government has not said where it plans to get these tests. “The City is reviewing the latest provincial directive on rapid antigen testing and will provide an update as soon as possible,” spokesperson Anthony Toderian said.

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