BY PAMELA FAYERMAN
Starting today, B.C. residents flying on WestJet out of the Vancouver airport will be offered free, rapid COVID-19 tests right before traveling.
The first study of its kind in Canada is a collaborative experiment among UBC and Providence Health Care researchers. WestJet and the Vancouver Airport Authority are sponsoring the study which will cost “hundreds of thousands.”
The goal is to find out if rapid testing, which produces results in 15 to 20 minutes, is a safe and efficient way to test departing passengers at YVR, especially those who are pre or asymptomatic.
Oral rinse swish and spit tests will be used as will nasal swabs. They detect pieces of viral proteins. Such kits are not quite as sensitive as the gold standard RT-PCR tests used by public health agencies across Canada. But researchers assume that the rapid tests will still detect most cases of COVID-19 in asymptomatic travelers or those with mild symptoms. A recent pre-print study (not yet peer-reviewed) had impressive results for the Abbott nasal swab test being used. Abbott has said its Panbio rapid test has a sensitivity of 93.3% and specificity of 99.4.%
The study is expected to run for three months and will include up to 1,400 participants.
“We know that asymptomatic carriers exist but what we don’t know is exactly how common it is and how much they contribute to the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Don Sin, a respirologist at St. Paul’s Hospital and co-leader of the study.
“This study will not only help support aviation safety but will also help public health leaders better understand, to what degree, asymptomatic individuals are contributing to the spread of COVID-19.”
In an interview, Sin said the nasal swab rapid test performed very well in the pretrial evaluation phase and was one of the point of care test favourites. It helped, too that Health Canada has already approved the test kit but that was for use in people with COVID symptoms, not those who are asymptomatic. He said the true proportion of people who don’t get symptoms is difficult to know but it’s believed it could be in the range of 25% to 33% of individuals.
About five to 10 study coordinators – wearing full personal protective equipment – will be at YVR collecting samples from travelers. Sin said the oral rinse swish and spit test, being far less invasive, is seen as one which may be useful long after vaccination programs are put in place. He expects interim results showing the feasibility of both point of care (rapid) tests at an airport environment should be available before Christmas.
Passengers who want to take advantage of the voluntary tests should pre-register and then get tested at the domestic check-in area. The study is open to those aged 19 to 80 who have not tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days. Guests must be flying within Canada and testing is available only on the day of travel.
Researchers from UBC and Providence will be collecting samples in a pop-up testing station at the airport. Those who test positive will be required to undergo further testing using the RT-PCR diagnostic test. For those travelers, WestJet will rebook or cancel flights with no penalties.
“While the world awaits the deployment of safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19, there is an urgent need for strategies to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus,” said co-investigator Dr. Marc Romney.
“Our study will inform whether a rapid screening program is a practical and effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 amongst travelers.”
Billy Nolen, Vice-President Safety, Security and Quality, WestJet, said in a statement:
“WestJet is leaving no stone unturned in ensuring the safety of air travel through initiatives such as the WestJet-YVR COVID-19 Testing Study.”
As I wrote before, the study has been in the works for some time as researchers conducted laboratory evaluations and validations of various rapid antigen tests that use nasopharyngeal (nose) swabs.
The rapid tests can provide results within 20 minutes. Testing will be conducted only on weekdays, during peak morning hours.
Airline travel has plunged during the pandemic and Tamara Vrooman, CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, said the agency is doing its part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 “while instilling confidence in those who need to travel.”
Airports in Calgary and Toronto airports are also conducting COVID-19 rapid test studies but those are on passengers who land in those cities.
Exactly a month ago, I wrote about the study plans and reported WestJet’s claim that not one passenger has gotten COVID-19 while flying on that airline.
The news about the study launch comes as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in B.C. will today surpass 30,000 with deaths over 400.
There are over 8,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the province and more than 10,307 people under active public health monitoring due to close contact with a known case.
Just over 300 COVID-19 patients are in hospital, including 69 in intensive care.