Alberta’s premier says rapid test nationalism is contributing to procurement difficulties, as the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave is increasing higher demand for testing.
Jason Kenney made the comments Thursday at a COVID-19 update, saying it would “unfortunately” be “awhile” before the province received enough tests to make them available to Albertans for free on a large scale.
“The reality is that we are facing a massive global shortage in these rapid antigen test kits,” Kenney said.
The premier said the province has distributed 15.3 million tests to date, with test kits containing five tests. While the “vast majority” of students and staff received two test kits within the first few weeks of classes resuming following the holiday break, Kenney says many are still waiting.
Kenney said the province expects to receive eight million tests it procured this and next week, on top of another million promised by Ottawa. Those tests are slated to be distributed to high-priority populations, including children and staff at K-12 schools, people working in long-term care facilities, and First Nations.
“We became impatient with delays from the federal government’s promised deliveries of rapid antigen tests,” Kenney said. “So we went to market in mid-December to procure 10 million rapid tests directly.
“Unfortunately we were running into the same global supply constraints and just general problems with supply chains around the world.”
‘VERY COMPETITIVE MARKET’
Due to soaring case counts during the fifth wave, Alberta and many other provinces in Canada reduced the number of people eligible to receive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests due to limited lab capacities.
Last week, Filomena Tassi, Canada’s procurement and public services minister, said at a press conference that rapid antigen tests have become harder to get.
“Up until the beginning of January, we had procured and delivered every test that provinces and territories were asking for. Of course, with the onset of Omicron in December, those requests escalated,” Tassi told reporters.
“This is a very competitive market, and there are issues with respect to the supply chain. And those deal with issues of labour, issues of accessing raw materials, and also the cargo planes and getting the transportation.”
She promised Canada was doing everything it could to procure more tests. To date, the federal government has obtained an estimated 426 million rapid antigen tests.
‘GET MORE TESTS APPROVED’: KENNEY TO HEALTH CANADA
Kenney said more countries are engaging in protectionist behaviour toward rapid test procurement, mirroring vaccine procurement challenges after they first became available.
“We talked a year ago about vaccine nationalism,” the premier said. “We are starting to see that same type of protectionism or nationalism when it comes to these rapid tests.
“I’m told by our department of health that one major U.S. provider with whom we signed a contract had the U.S. federal government come to them about 10 days ago and ordered a billion tests and basically used force majeure to say that we take precedent over all international orders,” Kenney said.
“I think this underscores, once again, the need for us here in Canada to onshore production (and) development of vaccines, of therapeutics, and equipment like tests of this nature,” he added.
“It also underscores what I’ve been speaking about since April last year: the need for Health Canada to accelerate the approval of additional rapid tests.”
Alberta’s premier said the European Union has more than 100 rapid test products approved for use and claimed Health Canada only had six.
“So we are much more vulnerable to these supply constraints as a result,” Kenney said.
“We urge Health Canada to get with the program to use emergency use authorization protocols to approve these tests,” he added. “These are tests after all. They are not medical interventions.
“Let’s get these more tests approved so we can get them in the hands of people.”
According to Health Canada’s website, 21 COVID-19 point of care antigen rapid tests are being reviewed. Twenty-five point of care tests have been approved for use in Canada by the agency.
“Only testing devices authorized by Health Canada can be imported or sold in Canada. Unauthorized tests may not produce accurate results, leading to potential misdiagnosis,” the health agency says.
“Health Canada confirms that authorized COVID-19 tests are well supported by evidence, indicating they will provide accurate and reliable results.”