COMMENTARY: Canada’s health minister needs to make coronavirus testing a much bigger priority

Earlier this week, Canada’s health minister shared her thoughts on the likelihood and the wisdom of another strict lockdown if indeed we face a second wave of COVID-19. Patty Hajdu even suggested that she wouldn’t “rule out” such a response.

Now, the minister is certainly entitled to her opinion on such matters, but it’s not really her call to make. Right from the beginning of this pandemic, provinces have taken their own approach to public health measures and that continues to be the case today.

Ottawa could theoretically try to usurp that through its own emergency legislation, but that would most likely be a non-starter.

So rather than pontificate on what provinces might or should do, we’d be much better off if Hajdu stayed focused on areas within her jurisdiction that could actually help provinces reduce the likelihood of a situation where stricter public health measures become unavoidable. Priority number one should be COVID-19 testing.

In fairness to the federal government, it announced in July $19 billion for the provinces to help re-open their economies. That included funding for increased testing and contact tracing.

And while testing capacity has certainly increased (to varying degrees) across the country, avoiding a second wave — or responding to one — is going to require further evolution in our testing capacity.

Saliva-based testing, for example, could offer a much less invasive form of testing that can be done much more quickly and cheaply. Rapid tests, the kind that could be done without having samples being sent to a lab, could be a real game-changer in the fight against COVID-19.

Ultimately, any new form of testing needs to be approved by Health Canada, and obviously, those decisions need to be evidence-based. Caution is warranted, but there seems to be a real lack of urgency on Ottawa’s part.

While saliva-based testing has received authorization in the U.S., no such testing has been approved in Canada. With the increased demand for testing across the country and backlogs and delays in some provinces, there has been increased pressure on Health Canada to move more quickly on such approvals.

Hajdu this week warned that “we will not at Health Canada approve a test that in any way endangers Canadians’ health,” adding that there are concerns about the accuracy of some new testing. However, the initial evidence around the accuracy of saliva-based testing is quite encouraging.

Clearly we want tests that will deliver accurate and reliable results, but even if new testing devices are not quite as sensitive as our PCR tests (which we currently rely on) there is still value in incorporating those tests if they allow us to test a much higher number of people.

A recent study out of Harvard University warned against the tendency to let perfect be the enemy of the good. Researchers found that less-sensitive rapid testing can still be effective in catching those who are most infectious and can therefore be an effective tool in mitigating outbreaks.

The demand for testing is going to continue to grow, both from increased numbers of coronavirus infections and from those experiencing colds or flus. The provinces are the ones that administer testing and make decisions on how to deploy testing resources, but they are at the mercy of federal regulators when it comes to new forms of testing.

We shouldn’t expect such testing to be a panacea, but nor should perfection be our standard. If Health Canada isn’t satisfied with what it has seen thus far, it should work with companies that are developing new testing methods and give them some clarity on what the path to approval looks like. Decisions on such matters should then be expedited.

This is what the health minister should be focused on. The provinces need new tools, not lectures on public health policy.

Rob Breakenridge is the host of ‘Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge’ on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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