Rapid testing: a useful tool?

Conversations about campus reopenings

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

The 2021 winter term is in its final weeks, and many university students and instructors are likely wondering whether in-person classes will be offered in September. Though most Canadian universities have yet to make that announcement, the University of Winnipeg (U of W) decided to hold its spring term (from May to August) online.

This is how most classes have been held since last March, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Various strategies have been suggested to make in-person classes as safe as possible. One approach is the mass use of rapid testing. 

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, says in an email to The Uniter that rapid tests have many benefits.

“The main benefit is that a test result can be obtained in about 20 minutes,” he says, adding these tests allow for rapid screening of people to identify positive cases.

Rapid tests “can also be set up in non-traditional settings, which makes them more accessible,” Lagacé-Wiens says. However, they are not as accurate as the conventional RT-PCR tests.

“Overall, the rapid antigen tests will miss two or three out of 10 positive cases, and the rapid nucleic acid amplification tests miss one or two cases out of 10 positives,” Lagacé-Wiens says, referring to different types of rapid tests.

“Because the tests are often done at the point of care, where the systems are not in place to report results in a lab system, results may not make it to doctors or public-health authorities, which can make contact tracing and follow-up difficult,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Lagacé-Wiens believes rapid tests have a niche role to play. They could, for instance, be used to screen people who are going to be in short-duration, high-risk settings, he says.

“Because these tests do a pretty good job of identifying people who are contagious at the moment, they could be potentially used to give a ‘day pass’ on being ‘likely free of infectious virus at the moment,’” Lagacé-Wiens says.

Scott Forbes, professor of biology at the U of W and president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, says that while rapid testing could help facilitate the return to campus, it’s not a perfect or complete solution.

“The rapid testing could be a useful interim measure, but we’re really not going to get back to anything close to normal until we have a full rollout of the vaccine,” he says.

Despite a somewhat bumpy rollout, the federal government is still asserting that all Canadians (who desire it) will be vaccinated by early fall 2021. 

“I think the conditions for reopening are going to be that we have the pandemic under control,” Forbes says.

Published in Volume 75, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 24, 2021)

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