Canada ‘lagging behind’ on approving COVID-19 saliva tests, some warn
Researchers and public health officials are calling for saliva-based COVID-19 tests in Canadian schools. But despite international efforts to make this option a reality, there’s still no word on when saliva-based testing for COVID-19 will be allowed in Canada. “School is just around the corner, and I feel like we’re lagging behind,” said researcher Dr. Michael Glogauer, a professor in the faculty of dentistry at the University of Toronto who has been focusing on saliva as a diagnostic tool for the last two decades.
Why isn’t it available yet? South of the border, five saliva-based tests have been approved so far by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — including, most recently, a headline-making test for COVID-19 developed by Yale University researchers with funding support from the NBA. Much like the current tests, which send nasal swab samples back to a lab, those tests — and other similar ones being developed in Canada — involve sending saliva samples to a lab for processing, with results back in around 24 hours.
But no such saliva-based tests have yet been authorized by Health Canada. “Health Canada reviews all COVID-19-related applications as quickly as possible without compromising patient safety,” spokesperson Eric Morrissette said in a statement provided to CBC News. Only one company, U.S-based DiaCarta, has submitted a COVID-19 saliva-based test to Health Canada for review so far. Glogauer, who is also head of dental oncology at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, said Canada is “always playing catch-up.”
Glogauer’s own team is focusing on one of the FDA-approved saliva-based lab tests already in use in the U.S. and is now applying for Health Canada approval. “It’s effective, it works, it can be used within the laboratory system. It’s plug and play,” he said. In Toronto, the city with Canada’s largest public school board, public health officials urgently want a saliva testing pilot project, and are calling on the federal and provincial governments to give the green light so local schools can explore how to collect saliva.
While calls for new testing options may be growing, Dr. Zain Chagla, a Hamilton, Ont.-based infectious disease specialist, said any eventual rollout of saliva testing in schools or elsewhere needs to be done “thoughtfully.” Since current models being explored would require existing lab facilities, he said widespread testing could eat up crucial resources, particularly as the regular cold and flu season approaches. “You may run into issues with slowdowns and delayed turnaround times,” Chagla said.
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Quebec declines to use federal COVID-19 notification app for now
Quebec will not ask its citizens to download the federal COVID-19 notification app for the time being, the minister responsible for digital transformation, Éric Caire, announced Tuesday afternoon. The provincial government believes the tracing system it is using now is adequate, given that there has been a slowdown in the number of cases reported in the province. However, Caire said the province will continue to do the logistical work needed to “immediately” deploy an app if the Health Ministry deems it necessary.
Launched by the federal government on July 31 — and so far operational only in Ontario — the COVID Alert app is designed to warn users if they’ve spent at least 15 minutes in the past two weeks within two metres of another user who later tested positive for the coronavirus. Caire said the province has learned from public consultations and legislative hearings that a solid understanding of the technology used in the app — it relies on Bluetooth technology to detect proximity to other users and does not collect geographic or biometeric data — makes Quebecers more open to installing it.
The federal app, which works on Apple and Android devices made in the last five years, has received positive reviews from privacy advocates, but myths persist about the data it collects — and doesn’t collect. Experts in both technology and public health stress that the more people who use it, the better it will be. But the Commission des institutions, Quebec’s legislative committee responsible for studying the usefulness of the app, said the disadvantages of the app outweigh the advantages. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, said he would ask Quebec Premier François Legault to reconsider his government’s position. “Just do it. It protects everyone,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Concerns arise over inequity of families’ pandemic ‘learning pods’
Many parents are forming their own learning or education pods with like-minded families that exist outside formal school systems this fall, with either parents or hired educators serving as teachers. Dissatisfied with how British Columbia public schools responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring, parent Elizabeth Mah feels the situation has laid bare what’s lacking in education. “The public school system is just not equipped. It doesn’t seem to have the funding or the budget to be able to accommodate change or modernize,” said Mah, a lawyer who runs her own firm.
But for many other parents with similar concerns, education pods are simply not possible, said Anna-Kay Brown, co-chair of the Jane and Finch Education Action Group in Toronto. “That’s great for the parents who have the time and who can afford to do it. There are a lot of parents in my community that do not have that option or choice or can afford to do it,” she said. It’s a generally accepted principle of public education that students should have access to a high-quality, safe schooling that’s not determined by their parents’ ability to pay for it, according to Sue Winton, an associate professor in York University’s faculty of education who studies policy and privatization.
Although she is sympathetic to the complicated mix of legitimate concerns parents have about the upcoming school year, Winton said learning pods challenge that notion of equal access. Experts from other sectors have also raised some flags about learning pods. Epidemiologists have noted, for instance, that while these smaller education groups may be safer, families cannot ignore existing pandemic safety protocols. These pods mean expanding one’s household bubble to include those of everyone else enrolled, said epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan. In that way, the safety risks are the same as with children returning to schools, said Deonandan, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
Indigenous Services minister announces $82.5M for COVID-19-related mental health needs
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced $82.5 million in new funding Tuesday for Indigenous communities to deal with increased mental health needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding is aimed at expanding “culturally appropriate services” such as community-based programs, mental wellness teams, virtual counselling and substance use treatment services.
Miller said pre-existing, intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities — as a result of residential schools and the current child welfare system — has been “exacerbated” by the pandemic. Miller said Indigenous Services Canada’s Hope for Wellness Help Line received 10,000 calls and chats between this past January and April, a 178 per cent increase when compared to the same time period last year, which saw 3,602 calls and chats. “The full impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellness of Indigenous peoples and communities will likely not be fully appreciated until long after we emerge from the pandemic,” Miller said.
Miller said the $82.5 million will be divided among First Nations, Inuit and Métis regional organizations, which will determine how the new money will be used. He also said the department will continue to support youth in the child welfare system who would have aged out of care during the current pandemic period until March 2021. To date, there have been 437 COVID-19 cases reported on-reserve, and 411 have recovered. The minister said the department is also preparing to support communities as they plan for the reopening of schools — providing non-medical face masks for children and hand-sanitizing stations in schools.
Here’s why blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients is still an experimental treatment
The World Health Organization warns that using plasma from the blood of patients who’ve recovered from COVID-19 remains an experimental treatment, highlighting the need for better data. Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval to expand the use of plasma to help patients hospitalized with COVID-19 after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to apply political pressure on the agency via Twitter. Trump pointed to data from a large U.S. program led by the Mayo Clinic in which more than 70,000 patients with COVID-19 were given infusions of plasma to support the expansion of the treatment.
Dr. Donald Arnold, a medical professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, co-leads the Canadian clinical trial testing whether convalescent plasma is an effective treatment for COVID-19. Arnold said since the U.S. data didn’t include a comparison with other care options, there’s no way to tell yet if the plasma improved outcomes better than standard care. That’s what his trial aims to do. What’s more, the standard of care for COVID-19 is changing, Arnold said, as other treatments do look like they work in a randomized trial.
Data from the U.S. and other countries suggests convalescent plasma is relatively safe, but Arnold said he’s watching for the possibility of adverse events such as worsening lung injury and circulatory overload from excess fluids. Arnold is also concerned about politicizing plasma, as the treatment hydroxychloroquine was previously. Both have been used to treat other illnesses but neither has been proven effective against COVID-19.
“There are other examples of things that look really enticing and the early data might suggest that it may be working but later on turns out once the data is in and all the trials have been done, it actually did not work or potentially was harmful,” said Arnold, who hopes plasma will be an effective treatment for COVID-19 — but just wants to be sure it is. Arnold said the team is taking a slow and steady approach to all of the details of the trial, which is expanding to include other countries with more cases than Canada. Results are months away.
Newcomer women stitch masks that allow new Canadians, deaf people to read wearer’s lips
A Winnipeg social enterprise has turned into a full-time mask-masking operation and is offering creative face coverings that show the wearer’s lips, making it easier to communicate. The Cutting Edge, which trains newcomer women to work as sewing machine operators, has made thousands of masks so far, and the orders keep coming. “There has been a lot of interest, a lot of inquiries,” said Anne-Lydie Bolay, operations director at the Cutting Edge program run through the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute.
Bolay said the program has been able to employ 10 newcomer women during the COVID-19 pandemic. They started by making regular cloth masks but soon adapted, after hearing concerns from newcomers and others who had a hard time communicating with a face covering on. Now, in addition to regular masks, they’re also making masks with a clear vinyl window that leaves the wearer’s lips visible. All their masks are comfortable for women who wear a hijab and are available in youth, children’s and adult’s sizes.
“This mask is perfect for newcomers that are learning English,” Bolay said. “It’s also perfect for people that have difficulty hearing.” She said the women who are making the masks are paid a fair wage, full-time employees get benefits and everyone is offered flexible hours because many have been negatively impacted by the pandemic in terms of child care. “I’m really happy because I’m really enjoying my work,” said Alia Mohammed, a newcomer from Ethiopia.
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