Airport testing could be a viable way to open borders and keep Canadians safe: study

McMaster Health Labs reports interim results of largest study of its kind in the world

Report backs airport COVID testing as a way to help reopen borders

testing viable
A woman swabs her cheek to demonstrate COVID testing methods at Toronto International Airport (photo: Air Canada).

A new study suggests COVID testing at the airport could safely reduce or replace the current quarantine period for people crossing Canada’s borders.

A team from McMaster Health Labs performed tests on 8,644 international passengers arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International. Passengers were asked to give a cheek or nasal sample at the airport on arrival, followed by samples taken at home seven and 14 days later.

Researchers found that one per cent of participants – 89 people – tested positive for COVID. Of those, 61 cases were detected on arrival at the airport. Another 23 positive results were detected a week later. Only five additional cases were found two weeks after arrival.

“Testing upon arrival with a followup test to catch later positive results could provide a reasonable path forward to help keep borders and the economy open while maintaining public safety,” said Dr. Vivek Goel. He is a professor at the University of Toronto, and principal investigator along with Dr. Marek Smieja of McMaster University.

Airlines – particularly Air Canada – have grown increasingly critical of Canada’s approach to the COVID pandemic. In March, the government closed the country’s borders to most non-Canadians. Anyone entering the country has to quarantine for two weeks.

Despite moves elsewhere in the world, Canada has not backed off its policy. The McMaster study was conceived for a number of reasons. Among them, to gather data to help convince the government to shift its position.

Support for trial in Calgary

“These interim results are very encouraging and provide robust data for governments to make science-based policy decisions with respect to safely reopening our country,” said Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada’s Chief Medical Officer. “The updated results strongly suggest that some form of a testing regime can provide a viable alternative to a blanket, 14-day quarantine requirement and also provide a mechanism to reduce travel restrictions more generally.”

Air Canada launched the study with McMaster University. The federal government jumped on board at the end of October with $2.5 million to complete the research.

The interim findings out of McMaster are a boost for a trial taking place in Calgary. Passengers arriving in Alberta are being given the choice of quarantine or a rapid test on arrival. Testing started earlier this month.

“The announcement brought a lift to our bookings not seen since before the pandemic,” Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims wrote last week in the Calgary Herald. Sims also touted the Calgary trial as a way to reduce the quarantine period.

Eligible passengers in the government-sponsored give a swab at the airport and must give a second sample a week later. If the first test comes back negative, usually within two days, passengers are free to live their lives. Passengers have to stay in the province for two weeks and be monitored by public health officials. They must also avoid gatherings and spending time with people who are at high risk from the coronavirus.

Testing the test

The McMaster study was also designed to see how well people would collect their own samples. Leaders were satisfied with the results.

“In addition to demonstrating the feasibility of conducting COVID-19 testing at the airport,” said Dr. Smieja, “the study has also shown the effectiveness of a self-collected COVID-19 sample using a cheek and nasal swab that is completed in minutes.”

The study’s backers hope it will shape government policy not just in Canada, but around the world.

“Today’s announcement by McMaster HealthLabs shows that the current response to
COVID-19 can be refined based on scientific findings,” said Toronto-Pearson chief executive Deborah Flint. “We welcome the opportunity to continue collaborating with the Government of Canada, determining the next steps toward a safe, responsible resumption of international travel.”

The Toronto study has now wrapped up. Interim results were based on tests collected between September 3 and October 2. The final results will include tests taken up to Saturday. The final report will contain data from more than 16,000 people and 40,000 tests. That report is due in January.

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Categories: Safety, Toronto

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