BY PAMELA FAYERMAN
Rapid testing before flights could be used as one tool towards traveller confidence and protection against COVID-19 after the Vancouver Airport Authority and WestJet said today that a co-sponsored trial showed it’s an effective method for screening travellers.
The B.C. study shows rapid tests contribute to a “safer, healthier” air travel experience, according to study authors.
“These findings provide real-world evidence that rapid antigen testing is a highly effective way of screening for passengers who may be carrying the COVID virus,” said Dr. Don Sin, a respirologist and clinical leader for medical microbiology and virology at St. Paul’s Hospital and Providence Health Care. He was the co-principal investigator of the study, along with Dr. Marc Romney.
“All tests administered during this period were negative, leading researchers to conclude that transmissible infection in airline passengers departing from YVR is likely to be extremely low – less than one percent,” Romney said in an interview. Not only were there no true positive tests, but there were also no false positives.
He acknowledged that there may have been an element of potential bias in the results since passengers who felt ill might have “self-excluded” themselves from the voluntary study. Nevertheless, the results should “provide passengers with greater confidence of healthy air travel,” Sin said.
Romney said that he and Sin are now submitting the study manuscript for publication to a major, peer-reviewed publication. The YVR-WestJet COVID-19 Testing Study results were announced just a day after B.C. Premier John Horgan said the province is implementing new travel restrictions designed to prohibit people from driving outside their health authority. On Friday, the B.C. government will bring in an order that exposes people to fines for non-essential travel outside their local health authority. There will be signs posted along the B.C.-Alberta border and checkpoints across the province, similar to roadside stops utilized by law enforcement to catch impaired drivers.
The airport study was a research project led by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Providence Health Care (Providence) along with sponsors WestJet and the Vancouver Airport Authority. From November 2020 to February 2021, nearly 600 departing passengers at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) had COVID-19 using rapid antigen testing that took under 20 minutes.
Participants were 19 to 80-year-old residents of B.C. who had not tested positive for COVID-19 in the last three months. Test results were validated through additional PCR testing in a lab environment after they were processed at the YVR Westjet domestic check-in area. Romney said the Abbott test kits were supplied by the federal government. He noted the test kits are now being sold as home kits in the U.S.
Participant feedback was positive, with many commenting on efficiency and how it instilled confidence in the safety of their travels. The test itself took about 15 to 20 minutes and Romney said the study is “yet another piece of evidence” that rapid testing is an important tool in the pandemic. “We need vaccinations, we need tests, and all the other public health measures as well.”
Despite the fact that public health officials have consistently posted information about flights in which travellers subsequently tested positive, last fall, the airport authorities declared that almost no one had gotten COVID on Westjet during or after domestic flights. Robyn McVicker, vice president of operations and maintenance at the Vancouver Airport Authority and Billy Nolen, vice president of safety, security, and quality for Westjet said in a joint statement:
“It is important to note that less than one percent of passengers who have flown on WestJet’s flights have been diagnosed with COVID-19 post-travel and zero transmission is known to have occurred on board.”
Now that the study has been completed, it’s uncertain whether airport testing will be offered routinely to passengers. For now, WestJet is using rapid test kits at the Calgary airport on employees. The voluntary screening is offered to staff upon arrival at work, twice a week.
“Screening WestJetters helps us curb any unintentional spread of COVID-19 and further supports our airline’s recovery strategy and our safety above all culture,” said Dr. Tammy McKnight, the airline’s chief medical officer.
Staff who test positive are sent home to self-isolate and advised to get a PCR test for validation.
Below are comments from officials about the study:
“We’re pleased to see the results of our joint study with WestJet, UBC and Providence Health Care and are grateful to passengers for their participation. It demonstrates the commitment and interest from our community in rapid testing solutions. Data gathered will be used for future testing strategies for the aviation industry, adding another layer of science-based health protocols to help reopen travel in a safe and efficient manner and to restore confidence amongst travellers. We’re also hopeful that our study results will go beyond aviation and prove useful across other industries as we move through the pandemic.”
- Tamara Vrooman, President & CEO, Vancouver Airport Authority.
“Thank you to the almost 600 guests who took part in the WestJet-YVR COVID-19 testing study this past winter. While not mandatory, your actions contributed to helping our partners at UBC and Providence Health determine that the use of rapid antigen testing is an effective part of a safe travel journey. While the vaccine continues to rollout, testing adds an additional and scientifically sound layer to our already rigorous health and hygiene measures and can help restore confidence in not only travel but in activities across all parts of our communities.”
- Billy Nolen, Vice-President Health, Safety and Quality Assurance, WestJet.
“Rapid antigen testing is a critically important tool – and perhaps an underutilized tool – in our ability to prevent and control COVID-19. The findings from our study provide further evidence that this technology can be successfully deployed in an airport setting, and that rapid antigen testing performs surprisingly well – even in a low- prevalence population, such as air travellers.”
- Dr. Marc Romney, Co-principal Investigator; Clinical Associate Professor, UBC Faculty of Medicine; Medical Leader for Medical Microbiology and Virology at St. Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care.