Air Canada has ordered 25,000 testing kits that can detect COVID-19 in someone in as little as five minutes, a key hurdle for an industry that’s desperately trying to make it safe and possible for travellers to fly again.
The first batch of tests will be for employee volunteers, now that the devices by Abbott Laboratories have been approved for use in Canada by federal health and safety authorities, the airline said Thursday.
Current tests have to be administered at testing centres, which have been plagued by long lineups, and results can take days.
The new test is faster and requires a nasal or throat specimen to be collected from a patient on a swab and inserted into an analyzer to detect the presence of the virus. Positive results come back in as little as five minutes. Negative results can take about 13 minutes to verify.
The airline is moving ahead with the plan after a testing phase when it partnered with McMaster University and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to test arriving international travellers at Toronto’s Pearson airport.
“Preliminary results from the study indicate testing can help protect customers and facilitate the safe relaxation of government travel restrictions,” Air Canada said.
More than 13,000 tests
Since the experiment began on Sept. 3, more than 13,000 travellers have been tested.
More than 99 per cent of the tests came back negative. Of the less than one per cent that came back positive, more than 80 per cent were identified on the initial test, while the rest were detected with a followup test seven days later.
“We believe testing will be key to protecting employees and customers until such time as a COVID-19 vaccine is available,” said Air Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jim Chung.
“Rapid testing is also a means to enable governments to relax current blanket travel restrictions and quarantines in a measured way while still safeguarding the health and safety of the public.”
Airlines have been hit harder than many other industries, as fears of the virus have walloped demand for travel, and border restrictions have limited the number of flights that airlines are even allowed to offer.
Unions demand help for sector
The airline hopes that the testing kits will help convince Transport Canada to relax current rules that stipulate all international travellers must self-isolate for 14 days upon landing, an onerous stipulation that the industry says makes people not want to fly.
The testing news also comes as unions representing more than 300,000 aviation workers say more government help is needed for the hard-hit sector.
At a press conference in a Toronto hotel on Thursday, Unifor president Jerry Dias said the industry needs a $7 billion injection from the government and access to low-interest loans urgently, “or there won’t be Canadian airlines, and that will cost us all much more.”