TORONTO – A consortium of some of the country’s largest companies has launched a rapid testing program to protect its 350,000 employees and publish a playbook for business Canada on how to safely reopen.
The program is considered the first of its kind in the group of 7 industrialized nations and has already attracted the attention of the Biden government.
The 12 companies, including Canada’s largest airline and grocery chain, have been working together for four months. Creation of a 400-page instruction manual for performing rapid antigen tests in various work settings. They started testing the tests in their workplaces this month and expect to expand the program to 1,200 small and medium-sized businesses.
They also plan to share their test results with state health officials to significantly increase the number of tests in the country and provide an informal study on the spread of the virus among asymptomatic people.
“It’s like wartime – people come together to do something that is in everyone’s interest,” said Marc Mageau, senior vice president of refining and logistics at Suncor Energy, the country’s largest oil producer, who conducted the tests this month introduced his employees.
The program faces some inherent challenges: After an outbreak last year in the White House, antigen tests were discovered that induce both false negative results and a false sense of security. They are also in short supply in Canada. Some experts feel that they should be reserved for schools and nursing homes rather than non-essential businesses.
While vaccines are considered the world’s best weapon to fight the pandemic, most experts believe it will take months, if not a full year, for Canada to reach the vaccination levels that will allow workplaces to safely return to their pre-Covid surgeries .
Canada is in a second wave of pandemics that has driven infections to record levels and deaths to around 19,800. In response, many parts of the country are on lockdown, restaurants, theaters, and non-essential retail stores are closed.
Canada’s economy contracted about 5 percent during the pandemic. Some industries such as real estate and manufacturing have performed well, but those that depend on public crowds, such as entertainment and hospitality, have seen employment decline.
“Think about downtown Toronto: nobody is there anymore. Entertainment – everything is stopped, ”said Joshua Gans, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto who served as advisor to and is the author of the project “The Pandemic Information Gap: The Brutal Economy of Covid-19.”
“It is time to figure out how to actually reopen the closed sectors,” he said.
The consortium companies were brought together in the spring by Ajay Agrawal, founder of the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab. That helps science and technology start-ups. They were inspired by the most Canadian muses: Margaret Atwood, the author.
“How soon can we get a cheap, self-administered test at the drugstore?” Ms. Atwood asked business leaders and others who were tasked with brainstorming ideas for economic recovery during the pandemic during a virtual meeting last May.
The problem, the group noted, was the “information gap” – with no way of telling who an asymptomatic carrier might be, everyone was treated as a potential threat.
Ms. Atwood envisioned something like a home pregnancy test.
“That would be a game changer,” she said.
When the group realized that the government was overwhelmed by the health crisis, they decided to take on the task themselves and form a consortium led by the Creative Destruction Lab.
The group focused on antigen testing because of its speed, price, and utility: you can get results in minutes, don’t require a lab, and can cost anywhere from $ 5 to $ 20 in Canada.
Jan. 30, 2021, 3:55 p.m. ET
However, they are less accurate and produce more false negative results than the gold standard polymerase chain reaction or PCR tests, which can cost 20 times as much. The three antigen tests approved for use in Canada characterize between 84 percent and 96.7 percent of those infected with the virus.
In the UK, antigen tests used in a mass testing campaign identified only two-fifths of the coronavirus cases detected by PCR testing.
Because of this, many experts in Canada and elsewhere initially argued that it would be wiser to expand PCR testing. However, as the pandemic spread and the country failed to meet its testing goals, that thinking changed, said Dr. Irfan Dhalla, co-chair of the Canadian Advisory Panel on Testing and Screening for Covid-19, which recommended increasing the country’s use of rapid tests.
“A rapid antigen test is clearly better than no test at all, as long as it is not used as a free pass, ”said Dr. Dhalla. “Whether it’s a job or a school, you still have to wear a mask and physically distance yourself as much as possible.”
In the long term, the members of the consortium hope that the testing program will help reduce infection rates enough to allow crowded restaurants and boardroom meetings to take place again. In the meantime, however, they plan to use the tests as an extra layer of protection – in addition to wearing masks, social distancing, and pre-screening of staff so those with symptoms can stay home.
The consortium companies also test their employees twice a week to increase the likelihood that positive cases will be picked up.
“Everyone is looking for a silver bullet. We realized that it doesn’t exist. It’s not, ”admitted Laura Rosella, professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto and advisor to the project.
In September, more than 100 consortium employees began working together at the expense of their companies to come up with a plan. Two retired generals volunteered to manage the logistics.
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Things to know about testing
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- antibody: A protein produced by the immune system that can recognize and attach to certain types of viruses, bacteria or other invaders.
- Antibody test / serology test: A test that detects antibodies specific to the coronavirus. About a week after the coronavirus infects the body, antibodies start appearing in the blood. Because antibodies take so long to develop, an antibody test cannot reliably diagnose an ongoing infection. However, it can identify people who have been exposed to the coronavirus in the past.
- Antigen test: This test detects parts of coronavirus proteins called antigens. Antigen tests are quick and only take five minutes. However, they are less accurate than tests that detect genetic material from the virus.
- Coronavirus: Any virus that belongs to the Orthocoronavirinae virus family. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2.
- Covid19: The disease caused by the new coronavirus. The name stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019.
- Isolation and quarantine: Isolation is separating people who know they have a contagious disease from those who are not sick. Quarantine refers to restricting the movement of people who have been exposed to a virus.
- Nasopharyngeal smear: A long, flexible stick with a soft swab that is inserted deep into the nose to collect samples from the space where the nasal cavity meets the throat. Samples for coronavirus tests can also be obtained with swabs that do not go as deep into the nose – sometimes called nasal swabs – or with mouth or throat swabs.
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR): Scientists use PCR to make millions of copies of genetic material in a sample. With the help of PCR tests, researchers can detect the coronavirus even when it is scarce.
- Viral load: The amount of virus in a person’s body. In people infected with the coronavirus, viral loads can peak before symptoms, if any.
The group was registered as a nonprofit called the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium in November, with each company contributing $ 230,000 in operating costs.
The employees work in teams Researched around 50 different antigen tests around the world, analyzed what was required for a screening program – from staff to number of dresses – and estimated the total cost.
The resulting 400-page user guide includes everything from an example of an employee invitation to participate in the program and a standard consent form, to a detailed shopping list of materials required to run a program.
One of the hurdles was getting tests. They had to get them from the government because they are not yet widely available in Canada and the demand from schools and nursing homes is high.
“Let’s do tests there first,” said Dr. Dhalla, referring to schools, nursing homes and important workplaces. “As we gain experience, we can talk about getting people back to work where working from home is an option.”
In January, five companies began testing the program in environments as diverse as pharmacies and radio stations. So far, around 400 employees have volunteered and nearly 1,900 tests have been carried out. According to Sonia Sennik, the executive director of the Creative Destruction Lab and avid quarterback of the project, only three have made positive returns.
“They didn’t go to work and they might spread something,” said Ms. Sennik. “We interrupted the transmission chain three times.”
The companies found the program reduced employees’ fear of not only getting to work but returning home every day, she said.
“I’m relieved,” said Mohamed Gaballa, an Air Canada official who took the test during a break at Toronto Pearson International Airport. This came up within 15 minutes by email: “Your screening result is negative. You can go on with your day. “
“This has been a missing piece in Canada for far too long,” said Dan Kelly, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses that represents 110,000 small and medium-sized businesses.
Small businesses face a lot more hurdles to implementing such a program, even if dodging a 400-page manual, he said. There is the cost of the tests, but more importantly the staff to manage them.
Mr. Kelly envisioned that the program would not work in restaurants and busy stores – places where unscreened customers far exceeded the number of employees screened unless they were planned to be tested. But in kitchens, small warehouses, small manufacturing facilities, and offices, “these tests could be very helpful,” he said.
“Under normal circumstances, the idea of small businesses doing employee testing for everything would be a fantasy,” said Kelly, who sits on the federal government’s industry advisory group on Covid-19 testing. “But in this case, given the desperation to remain or remain open among small business owners, there is a potential appetite for it.”