Toronto is first airport in the country to test large-scale employee COVID testing in collaboration with the National Research Council
Toronto Pearson International will become the first airport in Canada to offer routine employee COVID testing as it searches for new ways to keep the travelling public safe.
The airport will host two studies, executives said Wednesday, that could help propel rapid COVID tests to a new level.
The first study, funded by the National Research Council, will see a rapid polymerase chain reaction test site set up at the airport. PCR tests are considered the gold standard of COVID detection. Researchers in the 10-week study will collect samples from employee volunteers and some passengers. The samples will be processed on site and results returned within about two hours.
At the same time, researchers will use the samples to validate a new antigen test. Antigen test results are usually available within 15 minutes, but are considered less reliable. Westjet and the Vancouver Airport Authority are studying pre-departure antigen tests in a pilot programme. While passengers who take a rapid test in Vancouver are given their results before they fly, in Toronto, the goal is different. The antigen test results will not be shared, but instead compared to the PCR tests.
PCR tests are considered more accurate, but are slower and cost up to 20 times more than antigen tests. Analysis will be done on-site in new labs at the airport, a first in Canada.
“Science is at the heart of our Healthy Airport commitment,” said Deborah Flint, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the authority that runs Toronto Pearson. “This research will contribute substantial new scientific data to the body of knowledge used to fight this disease by improving access to testing that will identify, trace and isolate COVID-19.”
Search for volunteers
Departing passengers can sign up for pre-departure tests in the NRC-funded, at a cost of $45.
Testing facilities will be installed in Terminal 1 and be operational by March 1. Crews will install a second facility in Terminal 3. It is expected to be operational by mid-March.
In a second study, researchers are looking for 500 volunteers among people who work at the airport.
These people will be given three COVID antigen tests a week over an eight-week period. Researchers from the University of Toronto want to see how frequent rapid tests can enhance workplace safety. In this case, they will test people who don’t show symptoms in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID.
“Frequent, rapid testing for screening of asymptomatic people is an important layer among other essential public health measures to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19,” said Kevin Schwartz, an infectious disease physician at Unity Health Toronto and the University of Toronto. “We are excited to be supporting the GTAA and their partners in evaluating rapid testing of employees to build on our current knowledge on how to safely and effectively implement these tools.”
The airport reported 35 positive COVID tests in January among people who work on site. Affected positions include security screeners, baggage handlers, cleaners, and administrators.
Officials are hopeful the U of T study can lead to affordable, rapid tests elsewhere.
“This study demonstrates its strong commitment to protecting the thousands of Mississauga residents who work at Pearson, as well as their families,” said Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, where Toront-Pearson is located. “What makes this study particularly important is that its findings could be applicable to other work settings, not only in Mississauga but across Ontario and the entire country.
Calling for a national strategy
Canada’s airports and airlines have been calling for months for a national testing strategy as part of a plan to move beyond the pandemic.
The federal government mandated pre-departure COVID tests within 72 hours of international flights to Canada in January. This week, it added mandatory tests on arrival to the mix. Passengers arriving in Canada have to wait in a hotel for their results, which can take up to three days. After that, if the test is negative, the passenger can go home, but must quarantine until two weeks after their arrival.
The federal government closed the border to most non-Canadians in March.
As a result, the number of international flights into Canada has collapsed. Statistics Canada reported Wednesday that only 2,300 international flights arrived or departed across the country the week of February 6, the most recent available. That compares to more than 12,000 international flights a year earlier, a decline of 81%.
Passenger numbers have fared even worse. StatsCan said the number of foreign overseas passengers arriving in Canada fell 92% to just over 40,000 people in December.
Meanwhile, 170,000 Canadians returned home from international trips in December. That’s down almost 92% from the same month in 2019.
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