Coronavirus: Why isn’t Canada using blood tests for COVID-19?

Amid widespread criticism of Canada’s COVID-19 testing strategy, experts say health agencies should look towards a widely used method to determine who has been infected and who hasn’t: blood tests.

Serological tests, or blood tests, can identify whether a person has been exposed to a particular pathogen, like the new coronavirus, by looking at their immune response, Dawn Bowdish, Canada Research Chair in aging and immunity at McMaster University, said.

And while the tests can’t detect early infections, they could identify asymptomatic cases or people who had mild infections but were never diagnosed — filling in the gaps to help create a better understanding of Canada’s epidemic, Bowdish said.

“They are absolutely the gold standard for understanding the spread of this infection,” she said.

When the COVID-19 outbreak ends, researchers across the country will look to see how many people were truly infected with the virus to help better plan for the next outbreak. Blood tests “are extremely important” for this modelling, according to Bowdish.

McMaster University, Sinai Health, the University of Toronto and other research labs are all working to develop a blood test that can determine who is immune to COVID-19.

Private companies, meanwhile, have already created rapid blood tests that can provide results in under 20 minutes. The tests have been approved for use in Europe, Asia and the U.S, but in Canada, they are still “under review.”

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BTNX Inc., based in Markham, Ont., has already shipped more than 20,000 rapid tests to hospitals in the U.S. and is looking to move another 200,000 to the States and the U.K.

“We are not sure when we will be able to sell in Canada anytime soon,” Mitchell Pittaway, the company’s chief financial officer, told Global News. “We are looking to have production shifted to the U.S., where we are aiming to produce over a half-million tests a week.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed about serological testing this week and said it’s being looked at “very carefully.”

“We’re still in the early days of reflecting not just on the medical implications but on the societal implications of those tests as well, Trudeau said during his daily briefing Tuesday. “But we are continuing to pursue every avenue as a way of getting us through this.”​

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using blood tests to find undetected cases, and the FDA is allowing the test kits to be used by health-care professionals.

Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said there is “no reason” why Canada shouldn’t be using blood testing and that the tests could provide more clues about who is immune to the virus.

“Our whole acute health-care system has been re-engineered to deal with COVID-19 pandemic. It may just be that we haven’t taken a step back yet to understand the big picture,” he said. “It may just be a little of the tyranny of the urgent.”

Furness said it’s “disappointing” Canada isn’t using its own domestically sourced rapid blood tests but said there are always concerns about new tests and false positives.

“It’s not about ending the outbreak,” he said. “It’s about coming to terms with what we’re actually dealing with the virus and asymptomatic transmission.”

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