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A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The federal government has missed its own target to ramp up COVID-19 testing capacity and can only process a third of the daily tests it said would be available at the end of October – a target that experts say was likely already too low.

Ottawa’s struggle to build testing capacity comes amid a surge in cases and as the provinces and territories struggle to meet their own testing targets.

As of Tuesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said federal labs were able to process 2,000 of the 6,000 tests that it said would be available by now. The federal government pledged to act as a backstop to the provinces and territories, who are responsible for testing and labs, in the September Throne Speech. After the address, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa would help cover “surge demand."

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As Canadians across the country faced long waits in early October, Mr. Trudeau said the federal government was processing 1,000 tests a day for Ontario and “additional federal labs will be added.”

“This is about all hands on deck at this point and as we have been encouraging and supporting provinces to increase their capacities, so too will we increase our capacities where necessary because this is a Team Canada effort," he said.

PHAC said ″before the end of October” it would increase federal testing capacity to a “total surge capacity across Canada of 6,000 tests per day initially,” with even more to come in November. As of Friday, the agency said the National Microbiology Laboratory was still only able to process 1,000 daily COVID-19 tests; on Tuesday, that had climbed to 2,000.

On Monday, The Globe and Mail asked for an explanation for the delays and on Wednesday spokesperson Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge said “sometimes there are delays due to various factors in relation to equipment and training. Regular progress is being made and the expectation is to have the next four labs online over the course of the next two weeks.”

The 90,000 test backlog in Ontario in October and the current spike in cases in Manitoba show the need for federal surge capacity, experts say. But for Ottawa’s contribution to be useful on a national scale, it needs to be “a couple magnitudes higher,” between 20,000 and 40,000 daily tests, for example, said Zain Chagla, an infectious-diseases physician and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

However, he said what the federal government has created so far is helpful for small and remote communities that experience an outbreak.

Still, experts say there is no hard-and-fast rule for pinpointing what the federal capacity should be. Complicating matters is that provinces and territories are not meeting their 200,000 daily testing target (on Tuesday, just 65,491 tests were processed in Canada). Experts say why that target isn’t being met is unclear, and the goal for that testing target hasn’t been defined.

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Against that backdrop, identifying the number needed for federal surge capacity is all the more difficult, said David Naylor, co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

“It’s a confusing picture, we need to hunker down and figure out what our strategy is," Dr. Naylor said.

His comments were echoed by Andrew Morris, an infectious-diseases specialist at Sinai Health and the University Health Network and a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. Dr. Morris said Canada needs a national strategy for screening, diagnosis and surveillance of COVID-19.

Federal surge capacity needs to be part of that, but he said what Ottawa has built up so far doesn’t meet what’s needed. “I took a double take," Dr. Morris said about what the federal government had built up in lab capacity in October.

Determining an exact number is difficult, he said, but it would be "reasonable” for Ottawa’s surge capacity to cover 10 per cent of the daily testing target. The surge capacity should exist to cover not just sudden spikes in cases that push provincial and territorial resources to their limit, but also act as a backstop in case a lab is unexpectedly taken offline, Dr. Morris said.

Given that Canada’s per capita testing is lower than other countries that are seeing massive outbreaks, he said it’s not clear that Canada’s testing capacity can meet demand in a worst-case scenario.

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PHAC said in total it plans to have six labs operating across Canada to provide surge capacity. Once online, each lab will be able to process 1,000 tests a day with more to come. It has not yet said what it’s total federal testing goal is.

Warning about the “long winter” ahead, Dr. Naylor said it’s likely in the coming weeks that provinces will need to lean on the federal labs, so any capacity Ottawa can build is helpful.

“The faster they build it, the better,” he said.


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