Anyone who read the recent story in The Globe and Mail about a leading Toronto researcher who plans to test 10,000 Canadians for COVID-19 antibodies, in order to paint a more accurate picture of how many people have been infected by the disease, might have felt a tinge of optimism.
Here was evidence that the necessary science is getting done – the stuff that will help public health officials get the upper hand on the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Knowing the actual infection rate of the virus would allow officials to make better informed decisions about how and when to let the country come back to life.
But down at the bottom of the story was a reminder that our governments’ responses to the epidemic remain badly shortsighted.
A sample of just 10,000 people isn’t big enough to paint an accurate picture across all of the country’s various populations. “I would like to do 100,000 Canadians,” said Prabhat Jha, the lead researcher behind what will be the first large-scale antibody testing in Canada.
So why isn’t he testing more? Simple: not enough funding.
Our sources tell us it would take roughly $8-million to bump the testing from 10,000 to 100,000 people. But in a country pouring billions of dollars out the door in the form of emergency funding for the millions of people laid off as a result of the economic shutdown – an economic shutdown engineered as a blunt-instrument response to stop COVID-19 – the pocket change to acquire an $8-million surgical tool isn’t as forthcoming.
It’s just another example of this country’s inadequate response to the pandemic.
The testing and contact tracing desperately needed to contain the spread of the coronavirus is still sporadic and inconsistent in Quebec and Ontario, which account for more than 90 per cent of Canada’s infections and deaths.
On a countrywide basis, Canada still has mediocre results when it comes to the number of tests performed per confirmed case of COVID-19.
According to a recent analysis, we are testing 46 people per case. That’s better than the United States, which is doing 21 tests per case. But Germany is doing 123 tests per case, South Korea is doing 309, and Australia is doing 2,481. Those are countries that are out in front of the disease.
The only science Ottawa has lavished money on is the international effort to develop a vaccine. This might bear fruit, but even if it does, it could take months, if not years, for there to be an adequate supply to inoculate all Canadians.
Our politicians pay lip service to the need for better data, and otherwise seem determined to press-conference the coronavirus into submission.
Every day we hear from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford about reopening parts of the economy, and the possibility of more restrictions being lifted over the summer.
But given that Canada has not gathered enough data on the spread of the disease, and has a foggy picture of how many people have been infected, who they got it from, and where the next hot spots might appear, decisions to lift restrictions can only be based on one thing: the daily number of new cases.
On that score, Canada is finally doing better, thanks to physical-distancing measures. But we are operating blindly, hoping there is nothing hidden behind our limited data points, and that there won’t be a second wave of the disease as people start moving about again.
Canada needs to play a smarter game. A widely distributed vaccine is years away. The only way to restart the economy this year with any confidence is for our elected officials in Ottawa, Ontario and Quebec to start showing leadership on testing, tracing and gathering accurate data on the COVID-19 infection rate.
On Thursday, North American stock markets plummeted as new outbreaks began popping up in multiple U.S. states. And in South Korea, which has one of the best testing and tracing regimes in the world, a surge of new cases in Seoul has authorities worried about a second wave.
The fight against COVID-19 is going to be long. But Canada is playing a short game, hoping it can subdue the disease while knowing the least amount possible about its spread. No other country has been that lucky. Why would we be?
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