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Only 1% of travellers test positive for COVID-19 in Canadian airport-based surveillance study

Elisabetta Bianchini
·3-min read
COVID-19 in Canada
COVID-19 in Canada

Of the international travellers who volunteered for McMaster HealthLabs (MHL) COVID-19 testing study at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, newly released data reveals that only one per cent tested positive for the virus.

“Testing upon arrival with a followup test to catch later positive results could provide a reasonable path forward to help keep borders and the economy open while maintaining public safety,” a statement from Dr. Vivek Goel, co-principal investigator of the study, professor at the University of Toronto and a former CEO of Public Health Ontario reads.

The Canadian International COVID-19 Surveillance Border Study interim report provides an update on the airport-based program that has been conducted at the Toronto airport, with support from the Government of Canada and in partnership with Air Canada and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA).

The study was conducted between Sept. 3 and Nov. 14 and these interim results are based on more than 20,000 tests conducted on more than 8,600 people who travelled between from Sept. 3 to Oct. 2.

English or French-speaking international travellers 18 or older, with a final destination in the Greater Toronto Area who also live within 100 km of the airport, were able to participate. They were initially tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.

Eligible and consenting passengers were shown how to self-collect a nasal and cheek swab, and were provided with two additional kits for Day 7 and Day 14 testing. Couriers picked up test kits and questionnaires completed. The samples were analyzed using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing method, the same system used to evaluate samples from the general population.

There were 8,644 people who volunteered for the study as of Oct. 2 and of those participants, 89 tested positive for COVID-19. Of the positive cases, 68.5 per cent were identified in the Day 1 test, 25.8 per cent tested positive on Day 7 and 5.6 per cent had a positive test on Day 14.

The goal of the study was to provide clarity on the number of international travellers arriving with the virus and assess whether a reduction of the 14-day quarantine measure currently in place in Canada could be eased or reduced. This is in addition to evaluating the effectiveness of self-collected COVID-19 samples using the cheek and nasal swab.

“These interim results are very encouraging and provide robust data for governments to make science-based policy decisions with respect to safely reopening our country,” a statement from Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada’s chief medical officer reads. “The updated results strongly suggest that some form of a testing regime can provide a viable alternative to a blanket, 14-day quarantine requirement and also provide a mechanism to reduce travel restrictions more generally.”

These results have been released as another testing pilot program is being conducted in Alberta at the Calgary airport and the Coutts land border.

“Interim results from the border study support a test and reduced quarantine approach such as that being piloted in Calgary,” Dr. Goel stated.

A final report from this border study will be available in January 2021 and will include information on infection rates within age groups, across genders and the psychological impact of quarantine.