- Coronavirus tracker: Follow the spread of COVID-19 as cases rise in much of Canada.
- Opposition wastes no time as Parliament reconvenes, slamming Liberal government on COVID-19 vaccine supplies.
- What health experts say about banning foreign travel to limit virus spread.
- Provinces, territories vary on whether to name workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Read more: B.C. care home visitors not designated as essential and eligible for early vaccination are left frustrated; our photo essay looks at a year of pandemic life for Canadians.
As doctors urge more COVID-19 testing in schools, millions of rapid tests sit unused in Ontario
As of Jan. 19, the Public Health Agency of Canada had distributed about 14 million rapid COVID-19 tests across the country — most going directly to the provinces and territories, according to a spokesperson.
Ontario has received 4,465,172 of those tests. According to numbers provided by the province’s Ministry of Health to CBC News on Friday, it had deployed about 645,000 of those tests.
Some experts told CBC News that testing rates are too low and and wait times for results are too long as Ontario struggles with high case numbers — an indication that it’s time to make greater use of Health Canada-approved rapid PCR tests and rapid antigen tests, which can be analyzed on the spot and provide results within minutes.
“Right now we should be using all of the tools we have,” said Dr. Irfan Dhalla, co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel.
“While a rapid antigen test is not as accurate as the laboratory-based PCR test, a rapid antigen test is certainly better than no test at all,” said Dhalla, who is also a general internal medicine specialist and vice-president at Unity Health Toronto.
Remote learning is currently the order of the day in most of the province’s most populous regions, and improved access and quicker turnaround times for COVID-19 testing are essential if schools are to open again safely, several experts said.
“At the end of the day, the objective is to get more positive people identified and isolated to break chains of transmission,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton. “The test that is done is the best test. Not the one that we think is the best on paper. It’s the one that actually gets done.”
In an interview with CBC News, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province is ready to provide whatever testing capacity is needed. But he said it would be up to local public health units to make the call.
“Both tests and people can be deployed when the public health unit deems it right,” Lecce said. “We are not involved as a ministry or politicians in deploying it. We leave that up to the medical officers locally.”
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Government slammed on vaccine supply, distribution as Commons returns
Canada’s opposition leaders attacked the federal Liberal government’s COVID-19 vaccination program today in their first encounter in the House of Commons following the winter break.
Vaccine deliveries will grind to a halt this week as a shutdown at Pfizer’s plant in Belgium disrupts shipments from that company. Canada will not receive any doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week. A dramatically reduced shipment is also expected next week, as the company retools its plant to pump out many more shots this year than planned.
“Canadians are worried,” said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. “We’re in the second wave of the pandemic, there’s U.K. strains and this week we’re receiving zero Pfizer vaccines.”
Asked what he’d do to jump-start the stalled vaccination campaign, O’Toole said he would encourage Trudeau to obtain doses from the Pfizer manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., which is not experiencing the same disruptions as the Belgian facility and is only 220 kilometres from the Detroit-Windsor border.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand has said the Michigan facility’s product is earmarked for the American market in the first quarter of this year. The U.S. recently passed 400,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
O’Toole also took aim at decisions early in the pandemic by the Liberal government to partner with the Chinese firm CanSino Biologics — an endeavour that failed to bear fruit — and to not invest more in vaccine production capacity.
What health experts say about banning foreign travel to limit virus spread
Quebec’s premier François Legault is among those who wants the federal government to consider banning non-essential foreign flights altogether in the wake of highly contagious COVID-19 variants.
An international panel of researchers led by Dr. Karen Grépin, a Canadian-born public health professor at the University of Hong Kong, conducted a detailed review of the various travel restrictions employed around the world last year.
The panel found that implementing travel restrictions early in an epidemic did reduce transmission, but the researchers also concluded that “the effectiveness of these measures was short-lived,” adding the caveat that the overall body of evidence remains thin.
Dr. Kelley Lee, a Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences, a co-author of the study, said, “timing matters a lot; geography also matters a lot.”
A mathematical model published in the Lancet last month also found travel restrictions are only likely to be effective in certain circumstances. According to the model, travel restrictions will help reduce transmission in countries where there are few cases of COVID-19 and a lot of people arriving from abroad. Restrictions will also help in places “where epidemics are close to tipping points for exponential growth.”
According to Dr. Mylène Drouin, the director of public health for the Montreal region, “we have [current] cases that are imported from travellers, but it is not an important proportion of new cases.”
Tighter travel restrictions, said Lee, are perhaps best thought of as an extension of social distancing. It’s not about keeping the new, more infectious variants of the disease entirely at bay — it’s about slowing down their proliferation and buying time for the health-care system to absorb new patients.
Should governments name workplaces that have COVID-19 outbreaks?
Recent Ontario outbreaks of COVID-19 at a 911 dispatch centre and at a Canada Post distribution facility, plus outbreaks at industrial settings in Alberta and B.C., have renewed concerns about workplace spread.
CBC News has taken a look at how provincial and territorial governments disclose COVID-19 workplace outbreaks across the country — and the pros and cons of making them public.
Joe Cressy, Toronto city councillor and chair of the city’s Board of Health, believes the best way to make governments and companies accountable for protecting workers is to name every workplace outbreak, everywhere.
“COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting low income frontline workers,” he said. “In a pandemic, information is power. And information can also provoke change.”
For Dr. Nitin Mohan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University in London, Ont., naming workplaces would also “provide us with a lot of data about community spread.” Mohan said it’s critical that the privacy of individual workers be protected, which would mean some small companies couldn’t be identified.
Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist with Epi Research Inc. of Winnipeg, says naming businesses could backfire. She worries it could create a stigma around businesses that might have good safety practices, but could still have an outbreak.
“My concern is always that we don’t make that mistake of equating shaming with accountability,” she said. “It’s not the same thing.”
Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.
Moderna says vaccine appears effective against new coronavirus variants
The two-dose Moderna vaccine approved for use in Canada appears to protect against the coronavirus variants first identified in the U.K. and South Africa, the company announced on Monday. However, it may be less effective against the B1351 variant found in South Africa, according to studies conducted by the company, which is now developing an alternative version of the vaccine for booster shots.
For the B1351 variant, there was a six-fold reduction in neutralizing ability compared to use on prior variants, though the company said the levels remain above what are “expected to be protective.”
“It is a little worrisome that you see a lesser neutralizing antibody response, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unprotected,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel.
But, Offit added, even these lower levels may still be enough to protect against serious infections.
“The goal of this vaccine is to keep you out of the hospital and to keep you out of the morgue,” he said.
Despite the claim of protection offered by its current vaccine, Moderna said it is exploring a booster shot targeting the B1351 variant.
“Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective to boost titers against this and potentially future variants,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement.
Moderna’s latest findings are from a study conducted in collaboration with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. They will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication, the company said.
Pandemic inspires science student to create homemade lab device
In pre-COVID-19 times, Alanna Gravelle juggled a career in the Canadian Navy with her academic work earning a bachelor of engineering at Dalhousie, meaning she often had to complete her studies while aboard tge HMCS Halifax.
While lectures were easy enough to handle remotely, lessons in the laboratory were harder. So she started to create her own spectrometer, using a flashlight, a plastic tube, a box and a smartphone.
“What that does is shines a light through a liquid and you’re able to determine the concentration of the liquid with the amount of light that gets absorbed or makes it through the liquid,” she said in a recent interview with CBC News.
By the summer of 2020, Gravelle’s unusual problem had become mainstream. She won the Lloyd & Margaret Cooley Memorial research scholarship for women studying analytical chemistry and polished her rough design so other students could create it at home.
By making their own at-home version, students get a better understanding of what the machine actually does.
“It allows you to carry out experiments at home and collect data, and it also allows you to see the working parts of the spectrometer and understand what they do to give you that data,” she said.
Adds her mentor and Dalhousie chemistry instuctor Roderick Chisolm, “everyone can do it at home, make those measurements, so they can actually feel involved, rather than looking at a presentation or video.”
Chisholm thinks the homemade spectrometer could also help out at high schools, where students typically share a $750 professional spectrometer. The homemade version costs about $20, excluding the smartphone.
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