Companies to launch rapid COVID-19 testing for employees

 Some of Canada’s biggest employers are setting up workplace COVID-19 rapid-testing programs to encourage millions of workers to return to the office, hoping to reopen the economy ahead of a slow, staggered vaccine rollout.

The University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab is partnering with a dozen companies including the Bank of Nova Scotia, Loblaw Companies Ltd., Air Canada, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for pilot screening programs using rapid antigen screening that could cost as little as a dollar a test. The pilots are set to launch as early as Dec. 28.

Separately, both Mattamy Homes and Brookfield Asset Management told The Globe and Mail on the weekend that they have already been offering more robust polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for employees who choose to come to their offices. Mattamy, North America’s largest privately-owned home builder, has been testing staff at its three major offices in the Toronto region since November – covering the nearly $100-per-test cost in an effort to make employees feel more comfortable coming in.

Each of these programs is months in the making, as the organizations worked through the complex logistics of procuring materials and setting up safe testing processes. But the organizers see the testing programs as a crucial step in bringing people back to the offices that drive the Canadian economy.

“If we get the towers occupied in downtown Toronto, I believe it will create a catalyst for everybody else to go: ‘Why are those guys opening up and not us?’ " said John Ruffolo, the Toronto venture capitalist who worked with Mattamy and Brookfield to develop their testing programs. He helped connect them with Precision Biomonitoring Inc., based in Guelph, Ont., to secure tests, and says he is in talks with numerous other companies to adopt similar systems.

Peter Gilgan, the chair and CEO of Mattamy Asset Management Inc., the parent company of Mattamy Homes, said that much of his business benefits from collaboration, which is difficult without being able to meet in person. Mattamy now tests about 35 people a day. The testing program, Mr. Gilgan said, “will allow people to comfortably meet when they feel it’s a benefit to what they’re working on.”

The Creative Destruction Lab’s pilot participants will run voluntary screening programs, allowing those who test negative to work while wearing personal protective equipment, while directing those who test positive to take a PCR test through a public-health authority. Antigen testing has been hailed as an effective tool in limiting the spread of COVID-19, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says antigen tests produce more false negatives than PCR tests.

“This [screening] activity all takes place before people today would get to the public health system,” said Janice Stein, the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, who helped develop the pilot program. “It’s not a substitute for what public health is doing – it’s a compliment.”

The U of T consortium was set to announce the project on Friday but held back because Health Canada flagged issues that Dr. Stein said were reviewed and addressed on Saturday.

The U of T pilot is scheduled to end in April, after which the participating companies plan to implement the program widely. “We’re going to report results [to Health Canada] every two weeks, and the goal here is to design a plug-and-play model so that any business in the country can learn about it,” said Dr. Stein, adding that as many as 1,200 small and medium-sized businesses will receive training on the program during the pilot.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said Friday that the country had set aside some of its tests for pilots and research. The consortium plans to use antigen tests that the federal government procured from Abbott Laboratories and Becton, Dickinson, and Co. Creative Destruction Lab says the shallow nasal-swab tests can produce results in about 15 minutes.

The Mattamy program is using PCR nasal-swab tests that are processed on-site in 90 minutes or less using mobile testing kits from Precision Biomonitoring.

Although Precision says its testing system is being used in more than two dozen non-office workplaces, including mills, fisheries, movie studios, and mines, Mattamy and Brookfield are the first major urban office-based businesses to announce such testing programs with Precision’s technology.

Those programs already have support from some Canadian medical professionals, including former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins and Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases specialist at Toronto’s University Health Network.

“I see it as providing incremental safety, and gives people additional confidence that they can go back to a safe workplace,” Dr. Bogoch said. While he said this kind of program should not replace public-health measures, “If you can work within the local public-health rules and help create a safer work environment, I think this is a wonderful idea.”

Precision’s tests were approved by Health Canada in early November. They cost about $100 a sample, including the chemical reagents required to run the tests. Nine samples can be analyzed at once. Though the 90-minute timeframe is faster than public test results are usually made available, Health Canada does not consider Precision’s test “rapid” because of the 90-minute timeframe.

The company was founded four years ago by the University of Guelph biodiversity specialists. They developed technology to rapidly identify organisms in various environments by scanning genetic material and built a mobile testing platform that the company says is as accurate as traditional labs.

In February, Precision began developing a COVID-19 test that would work with its mobile kits, says CEO Mario Thomas. “For us, as molecular biologists, it’s just another virus,” he said.

Last May, Mr. Ruffolo approached Dr. Thomas to discuss how to use Precision’s technology to reopen downtown Toronto. The company is now in talks with several more office-based clients.

Kerri Smiley, Mattamy’s vice-president of human resources, oversaw the program’s implementation. She said that many of the staff choosing to come into the office and take the voluntary tests are senior leaders, but that many others come in once every week or two. More than 200 employees have been tested since the program began, she said.

While COVID-19 vaccines are gradually rolling out to parts of the population, Dr. Stein says a robust screening program will remain crucial for at least 18 months to ensure safety. She said the idea for the Creative Destruction Lab’s consortium began with a thought from the author Margaret Atwood.

Last spring, the Lab’s founder Ajay Agrawal launched a “vision council” that Ms. Atwood was a part of, Dr. Stein says. The council was formed to identify the biggest challenges the pandemic would bring.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had a test like we have a pregnancy test where you can pee on a stick, and you would know if you were infected or not?” Dr. Stein recalls Ms. Atwood saying.

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