Swabs from COVID-19 tests being done at Ontario pharmacies are being sent to a lab in California for analysis before being shipped back to Canada, CBC News has learned.
Ontario is dealing with a severe backlog of coronavirus tests during this second wave of the pandemic. According to Ontario’s ministry of health, the backlog of tests was 68,000 this past weekend.
Dozens of Ontario pharmacies have been doing testing since Sept. 25, and the specimens collected are shipped to Quest Diagnostics’ infectious disease lab in southern California, said Isaac Gould, the CEO of In Common Labs (ICL).
ICL is the Canadian company that works as a broker between collection sites, such as assessment centres and pharmacies, and the labs where the tests are done, both in Canada and internationally.
“We’ve gone from a reasonable capacity to a massive demand. This is a responsible step,” Gould said.
Ontario’s network of community, commercial and hospital labs processed more than 38,000 novel coronavirus test samples on Sunday, the ministry of health reported. The goal is to do 50,000 tests a day, but there’s a massive backlog in getting results.
“The province is looking for alternative ways of expanding capacity,” Gould said. “Supply in Ontario for COVID testing has increased from 12,000 tests a day in mid-March to 45,000 tests in less than six months. That’s a huge undertaking. Demand has outstripped supply.”
At the end of September, some pharmacies in Ontario began offering COVID-19 tests to people who are symptom-free on an appointment-only basis.
Processing time unclear
At that time, the province asked ICL to send the specimens collected at pharmacies to Quest Diagnostics, Gould said.
That means a specimen first gets sent to ICL in North York, which then inputs all the data and sends the specimen to Quest’s San Juan Capistrano infectious disease lab, where it is tested. The results then come back to ICL and are returned to the pharmacies, which are able to put the information into the provincial database.
“Testing is a key pillar in Ontario’s fight against COVID-19. As Ontarians expect, all options are on the table to quickly identify cases and contain the spread,” Ministry of Health spokesperson Carly Luis told CBC News.
“To ensure the province is well prepared to manage any increase in testing volumes, the province continues to expand the capacity of our lab network. This includes working with third party providers, such as Quest Diagnostics, to process more tests and achieve provincial testing targets. As part of the province’s comprehensive plan to prepare the health system for future waves of COVID-19, we will leave no stone unturned to keep Ontarians safe.”
It’s unclear how much time sending specimens to California adds to someone in Ontario receiving their results.
“Right now, with COVID, people are waiting for these test results to determine the next step of their lives,” said Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS).
“Can I send my kids back to school? Do I go back to work? It affects you. If you’re symptomatic, you’re not supposed to be moving about. Until you find out you’re negative, your behaviour needs to change, and that’s why we need to clear this backlog.”
At his daily briefing, Premier Doug Ford said “there are only so many diagnostic lab technicians here. We are reaching out to everyone, to colleges and universities and to private sector labs” to deal with the backlog.
California has robust regulatory oversight of its labs, Nielsen said.
“If tests are being done somewhere else in the world, presumably only the highest standards are in place, because it wouldn’t be selected as good enough for Ontario,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen said she thinks most people don’t know that their specimens might be sent to labs in the United States.
“I think it’s not known, not widely known,” Nielsen said.
But it’s not uncommon for Ontario to use labs in the United States for certain tests, Gould said.
“Because we’re in a pandemic, the province has a responsibility to match demand with supply, and I think they’re doing the best they can,” Gould said. “We have to recognize that lab professionals are doing a tremendous job of testing our population.”