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Air Canada Aims to End the Debate on Whether COVID-19 Tests Can Replace Quarantine

Air Canada Aims to End the Debate on Whether COVID-19 Tests Can Replace Quarantine

Can a quick and simple COVID-19 test safely replace mandatory 14-day quarantine periods for international travellers? That’s the question Air Canada hopes to answer with a new partnership with McMaster HealthLabs and Toronto Pearson International Airport to test international travellers for the novel Coronavirus arriving in Canada.

If the results go in Air Canada’s favour, there will be renewed pressure for the Canadian government to ease tough border restrictions that were introduced to combat the spread of COVID0-19. At present, most foreign nationals are banned from entering Canada, while returning Canadian citizens have to self-isolate for 14-days – even if they arrive from a country with a lower prevalance of the novel Coronavirus than Canada.

Air Canada has been highly critical of the Trudeau administration for the continuing travel restrictions and has called for a “science-based approach” that could exempt arrivals being forced into quarantine if they take a COVID-19 test on arrival and it subsequently comes back as negative.

Over 30 countries have so far arrival testing schemes in some form or other but there are concerns that testing either on arrival or departure might not be as effective as some industry bodies claim.

Both France and Germany appear to be cooling to the idea of exempting people from quarantine based on a single negative COVID-19 test over fears that travellers might already be infected but not have a high enough viral load at the point the test is taken for it to come back as positive.

The problem is, nobody really knows how great that risk really is. Some lawmakers in the United Kingdom claimed testing on arrival would only detect around 7 per cent of positive cases crossing the border. Advocates of COVID-19 test claim that figure was the result of dodgy math.

So, Air Canada plans to answer that question.

“Our study will provide data to help determine if an airport-based COVID-19 surveillance program is feasible, whether self-collection of COVID-19 testing is effective, and to explore options regarding the 14-day quarantine for international travel,” explained John Gilmour, the chief executive of McMaster HealthLabs.

The month-long study will enrol arriving passengers from international destinations on a completely voluntary basis. Volunteers will take one test at the airport and a second test after seven days. A third test will be conducted on day 14.

“Air Canada has advocated for the adoption of rational, science-based measures in Canada relating to COVID-19, to allow for the prudent easing of travel restrictions and the mandatory 14-day quarantine, thereby striking a better balance for travellers and for the Canadian economy without adversely impacting public health,” explained Air Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr Jim Chung. 

“We are pleased to co-sponsor this extremely important study, which we believe should provide alternatives to the current blanket restrictions and quarantine.”

Heathrow International Airport has proposed double testing arriving passengers – the first immediately after arrival and the second either five or seven days later. The idea is to at least reduce the 14-day quarantine period while accounting for the fact that viral load in the first test might be too low to show up.

The British government has not approved Heathrow’s plan to reduce the current quarantine period with COVID-19 testing. Would the Canadian government be more willing to change its approach to quarantine if Air Canada gets the results they are hoping for?

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