Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday April 24, 2020
Federal COVID-19 testing program will determine how far coronavirus has really spread
The Trudeau government committed more than $1 billion to COVID-19 research Thursday, including a proposal for widespread testing to better understand the coronavirus that led to the pandemic and to chart a recovery course for the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada needs research to respond to the pandemic in the best way possible.
“The better we understand this virus, its spread and its impact on different people, the better we can fight it and eventually defeat it,” he said.
The funding includes $40 million to do viral sequencing to track the virus and its different strains, $23 million for vaccine research, $600 million for private sector trials of drug treatments and vaccines, $114 million to the Canadian Institutes of Health research for research into measures that could reduce the spread, and a host of smaller initiatives.
The government is also setting up a “immunity task force” that will do widespread blood testing to determine just how far the virus has spread.
Unlike the current testing using nose and throat swabs, this wider testing using blood samples will be able to track people who may have had the virus, but had little or no symptoms and have now recovered.
Dr. David Naylor, a former dean of medicine and president of the University of Toronto, with an extensive background in epidemiology, who also chaired the national advisory committee on SARS, is on the task force.
He said there are likely many people walking around who have fought off the virus without even knowing they had it. Those people are believed to be immune and knowing how many there are can help the government make decisions on easing restrictions following the national lockdown that’s been in effect to fight the pandemic.
“The level of background immunity gives us some sense of how fast we can move on easing some of these restrictions,” he said. “If a lot of people are immune then this will be an easier lockdown to lift. If they aren’t we have to be a lot more careful.”
Widespread blood testing will be required to determine the prevalence of the virus. While it’s expected to take months to get a full picture, early results should give a sense of the scale of the disease, Naylor said.
“I would not be surprised if there is going to be a bit of a range within Canada. We can’t test every Canadian. We can’t test everyone everywhere, but we will test a sample across the country.”
Naylor said even when the immunity testing is completed, there will still be a need to quickly test and trace people who get sick. He said once people are out of social distancing it will be harder to test outbreaks of the virus, which is why Canada has to be prepared to move quickly.
“Immunity testing alone is not the answer, you still have to have the firefighting,” he said. “As soon as we get very active intermingling again then it is going to be much harder to fight the flare-ups and we have to have our ‘A’ game in testing and tracing.”
As of Thursday, Canada had tested 620,000 people for the virus and reported more than 41,500 cases, including 2,141 deaths. (National Post)