Has the border screening test for COVID-19 become useless?


Once one of the main health measures at the borders, the COVID-19 test on arrival in Canada receives a final attack before its planned abandonment by the federal government: a group of medical experts argues that this screening measure has become completely useless .

“For surveillance of variants of concern, there are more efficient ways to do this, such as testing sewer water,” says Dr.r Dominik Mertz, director of the division of infectious diseases at McMaster University in Ontario.

The professor of medicine has signed with three colleagues a report commissioned by the tourism industry which concludes that in general, border measures are ineffective in protecting the country from the arrival of new variants of COVID-19. They estimate that these rules only delay the propagation of variants by a few days, at best.

“Vaccination has completely changed the situation. […] We are in a completely different world” compared to the start of the pandemic, says Quebec microbiologist Karl Weiss, head of the infectious diseases department at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and co-author of the study.

The Dr Weiss believes border measures can be safely relaxed — including mask-wearing requirements on planes — over which he prefers individual choice whether or not to protect themselves from the virus.

Two sources told The Canadian Press on Thursday that Ottawa has no intention of renewing the decree which still imposes health rules at the borders. The authorities, for example, still ask certain randomly selected travelers to take a screening test for COVID-19 upon their arrival in the country. The bumpy life of this measure would thus come to an end on September 30.

From mandatory to random

The history of on-arrival testing for travelers fully vaccinated against COVID-19 has been punctuated by a series of changing guidelines over the past two years.

This test was initially considered so important that, from February to August 2021, travelers had to book a room in an authorized hotel pending the result. It then ceased to be required for everyone, to be imposed only on randomly chosen travellers, before becoming compulsory again in December of the same year, with the advent of the Omicron variant.

Having become random again at the end of February 2022, the border test was completely suspended for more than a month last summer, the time to set up a system allowing it to be carried out outside airports. Since the final return of the random test, on July 19, 2022, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has not published the data collected.

Breaking with the tradition of putting summary data on these tests online within days, officials have been indicating for two months that “the data is currently undergoing quality control checks”. In an email sent on Friday, PHAC spokesperson Andréa Richer promised the publication of this data “in the coming days”.

Border testing for travelers arriving by air or by land has been the subject of contracts worth around $1.1 billion. The department responsible for these contracts, Public Services and Procurement Canada, was unable to say whether all the services were provided, and therefore whether this amount was fully spent.

Unnecessary tests

However, according to the report, which bears the badges of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and the Canadian Tourist Travel Roundtable, “there is no convincing evidence that pre-departure screening [qui n’est plus exigé depuis avril 2022] and on arrival has a dramatic effect on local transmission in communities across Canada.”

One of the problems with routine testing, the authors noted, is that people can test negative even if they have the virus, then in its incubation phase. Others may test positive even though they are no longer contagious, forcing them to self-isolate unnecessarily. In January 2022, more than 8% of COVID-19 tests performed at the airport on newly arrived travelers were positive.

The four doctors specializing in infectious diseases, emergency or pandemic management asked the federal government on Friday, during a joint press conference in Ottawa, to review its approach to the border.

“I believe the measures have been very helpful at times during the pandemic. And the measures that have been put in place in Canada have certainly made it possible, when we did not have a vaccine and therapy, to avoid significant consequences, ”however indicated the Dr Karl Weiss. He believes that society should mourn the dream of herd immunity and instead prepare for the endemic phase of COVID-19.

In addition to the fate of random border screening, the Canadian government is expected to announce next week what it has in store for its mandatory ArriveCan traveler app, its mandatory tourist COVID-19 vaccination policy, and the obligation to wear a mask on the plane, in particular.

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