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Air Canada, Rogers and Suncor part of consortium piloting rapid COVID-19 testing

TORONTO — Canadian space technology and robotics giant MDA will begin offering its workers rapid COVID-19 testing at its Brampton, Ont.

TORONTO — Canadian space technology and robotics giant MDA will begin offering its workers rapid COVID-19 testing at its Brampton, Ont., headquarters starting Tuesday, the latest company in a consortium of some of the country's biggest firms testing workplace screening.

The pilot is being run by the University of Toronto's Creative Destruction Lab, which has partnered with 12 companies including some of Canada's top airlines, banks and sports teams to experiment with antigen tests that take about 15 minutes to deliver results.

Those behind the project believe it could give Canada's corporate world a road map to quelling the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces that have had to close or have struggled to contain outbreaks.

"It's a tool to be able to reopen parts of the economy and not have these broad range closures," Holly Johnson, MDA's director of business operations, said in an interview. 

"The advantage of this kind of screening – if you can roll it out at scale and get mass screening across a wide range of workplaces and facilities – is that you can imagine wide areas of the economy being able to be opened up again."

The company's Brampton facility – which normally has a complement of about 450 employees – currently has between 85 to 100 workers on-site daily. So far, about 60 of those workers have signed up for the testing, she said. 

The rapid testing at MDA is a voluntary program and is offered on top of mandatory COVID-19 protocols that are already in place, such as symptom screening, temperature testing, physical distancing and masks, Johnson said. 

Workers at the space technology company register for the rapid test pilot program and sign a consent form using an app developed by Microsoft Canada Inc.

The app is also used to schedule the COVID-19 appointment and to check in when they arrive.

The test itself is a nasal swab – not the "deep brain tickler" of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, Johnson said. 

After the test, employees return to the workplace and are notified of the results within about 15 minutes through the app, she said. 

If the worker tests positive, the employee is asked to leave the workplace to obtain a PCR test from a provincial testing site, a deep cleaning occurs and contact tracing takes place, Johnson said. 

If the PCR test is positive, the worker is required to complete the necessary quarantine and can transition to working from home. 

"The employee will still get paid," Johnson said.

She added that she's hopeful more workers will sign up in the coming days.

"What we are trying to do is break the chain of transmission," said Ajay Agrawal, the founder of the Creative Destruction Lab, a non-profit helping science and tech firms.

"We are using screening to stop one infected person from infecting other people in the workplace."

Rogers Communications Inc. and Air Canada were the first two companies to begin the testing and in late January were joined by Suncor Energy Inc. and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Agrawal said.

Bank of Nova Scotia, Loblaw Companies Ltd., Shoppers Drug Mart, Magna International Inc., Nutrien Ltd. and Canada Pension Plan Investments are expected to begin testing soon.

It wasn't hard to get the companies on board, said Agrawal, because everyone is eager to reduce the spread of the virus and lift severe lockdown measures that have closed businesses across Canada and forced others into bankruptcy.

"I think they look across the country and all they see is carnage. Economic carnage," said Agrawal.

Suncor joined the consortium with the aim of developing “a cost-effective system for reopening the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic in the absence of widely available vaccines or treatments,” spokesman Paul Newmarch said in an email. 

The company has started piloting rapid testing with a targeted group of essential workers at Suncor’s base plant in the Wood Buffalo region of northeastern Alberta, he said. 

“Our focus right now is to pilot rapid screening for our essential workers,” Newmarch said, adding that the company is working towards getting additional pilots up and running in other areas across the country.

Loblaw spokeswoman Catherine Thomas said a handful of Shoppers Drug Mart locations and one of the pharmacy’s distribution centres in the Toronto area are participating in the rapid testing program.  

“We’ve already been conducting asymptomatic PCR tests at pharmacies in Ontario and Alberta, and believe expanding to rapid tests will complement the ongoing testing work and help reopen our country safely,” she said in an email. 

Meanwhile, the lab got executives from the companies together at the start of the pandemic when he realized that a "novel" health crisis would also need novel solutions.

They formed a "vision council" and convinced Mark Little from Suncor, Galen G. Weston of Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart and Don Walker from Magna to join.

Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and author Margaret Atwood took part as "thought leaders."

After presentations and poring over plenty of numbers, they decided to put up their money and time and agree to share data as they experiment with rapid testing.

Two retired military generals with experience in Afghanistan were called in, and they began rehearsing how to make the testing as efficient as possible.

They reduced the entire screening process from seven minutes per person to 90 seconds.

"They keep trying to chisel down the time and expense," Agrawal said. 

"For example they had a medical professional doing Step 1, 2 and 3 and they realized we don't need a medical professional doing step two and that brings the cost down."

The pilot tests workers twice a week and makes use of millions of rapid tests obtained by the federal government and dispersed across provinces, who were allowed to allocate them for businesses.

Agrawal considers the PCR tests the "gold standard" because they're considered to be more accurate than rapid tests and are being used by most provincial COVID-19 assessment centers.

He expects the rapid tests will generate some false positives, but not many.

"So far, there's only been a few cases and they've all been confirmed by the PCRs," he said.

Once the kinks are all worked out, Agrawal hopes to scale the system quickly, but he warns rapid antigen tests can't work alone.

"They're not going to solve (COVID) alone, but when we combine them with other things like PCRs and rolling out the vaccines, they're just one piece of the puzzle, but a critical one."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:L, TSX:BNS, TSX:RCI, TSX:MG, TSX:SU, TSX:NTR)

Tara Deschamps and Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press