Vancouver

Vancouver International says testing study shows promising results

Preflight rapid tests turn up no COVID cases among 200 Westjet passengers

Researchers are expanding eligibility criteria, hoping for 1,000 participants by the time the study ends

Vancouver testing results
A Westjet Boeing 787 departs for Toronto January 14, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

Vancouver International Airport reported promising interim results from its pre-flight COVID rapid testing trial.

“The interim results show promise that transmissible infection among airline passengers departing from YVR is likely to be extremely low (less than one per cent),” the airport said in a blog post Friday.

The airport launched its testing programme in late November in collaboration with Westjet and the University of British Columbia. The airport set up a former shipping container outside Westjet’s domestic check-in area. Residents of British Columbia leaving on flights within the country can sign up for a rapid test before they leave. Results take about 15 minutes, the airport reported.

Testing is open mornings before noon, but closed on Tuesdays and Sundays, typically two of the slower travel days. Up to 300 people have participated in the trial so far, though the interim results are based on data from 200 passengers.

“Participant feedback was resoundingly positive with many saying the procedure was more comfortable than expected,” the unsigned blog said. “Participants also appreciated the timeliness and efficiency of the process.”

Holding out hope

Airports and airlines are holding out hope that testing will help restart aviation. They are lobbying governments for national testing policies that will reduce or eliminate quarantines on international travellers. Most people arriving in Canada on international flights must quarantine for two weeks. Ottawa has responded with a pre-flight testing requirement on international flights into Canada, but left the quarantine in place.

In Vancouver, researchers found no COVID cases among 200 people by mid-December, using rapid tests. They sent samples for more reliable PCR tests, which turned up no false negatives.

“The interim results indicate that a rapid antigen testing approach is feasible for use in departing air travellers,” the airport said, “especially for domestic or short international flights.”

The rapid testing results mirror results from an unrelated study in Toronto funded by the airport authority and Air Canada. There, the airport offered passengers on international flights the chance to take a post-arrival COVID test. Interim results found one per cent of travellers had or developed COVID within a week of arrival. Researchers hope to release final results this month.

A study out of New Zealand of COVID spread on an 18-hour international flight from Dubai to Auckland, however, backed government quarantine policies.

The cost of pandemic

The cost of the pandemic has been extreme in most parts of the country. In Atlantic Canada, where both Westjet and Air Canada have closed operations and withdrawn scores of routes, businesses worry they may be permanently severed from the rest of Canada.

“To be forthright, we cannot grow our population, increase our tax base, and attract investment if people and businesses cannot efficiently and cost-effectively access this region,” wrote Sheri Somerville, the Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce. “People just don’t relocate to, and businesses just don’t invest in, locations they can’t access.

“We have all the tools we need to stave off the virus—safety protocols, testing, contact tracing, and now vaccines—and we want to work with you to contribute to eradication efforts,” they wrote.

Victoria International is one of the first airports in Canada to detail the cost of the pandemic. In mid-December, the airport authority sent a letter to the governments and agencies that appoint its board members. In it, managers project a loss of $7.5 million in 2020, compared to a $9 million surplus in 2019. Most airport revenues in Canada are tied to passengers and the fees they generate. Victoria handled fewer than 600,000 passengers, compared to more than 1.9 million in 2019.

The airport authority is looking at the possibility of a testing regime. But Rod Hunchack, Victoria’s Director of Business Development and Community Relations told a local board that testing is expensive.

Vancouver is expanding testing eligibility to all Canadians and hopes to gather results from 1,000 people before the end of the trial.

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Categories: Vancouver, Westjet

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