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Alberta is bringing in more rapid COVID-19 tests as millions destined to be tossed

With Alberta’s stockpile of rapid COVID-19 tests about to expire, the province is working to bring in more supply.

According to Alberta Health, five million rapid antigen test kits, each containing at least five individual tests, are set to expire in March and will be discarded. 

Another large stash of tests that expired Jan. 1 have already been tossed. In November, the province told CBC News that 760,000 boxes were in a central warehouse with that expiry date.

At Cambrian Pharmacy in Calgary, pharmacist Mathieu Giroux said that while demand is not nearly as high as it once was, he is still placing regular orders for rapid COVID tests.

But lately, some of his customers are choosing to wait when they realize the limited shelf life left on the current stock.

“Some people don’t want them because the expiration is short,” said Giroux.

They want to have them on hand, but since they’re expiring in less than a few weeks or a month, they’re just going to pass for now.”

More tests coming

CBC News reached out to the province to find out what it plans to do once its stockpile is depleted.

“Alberta Health is currently working with the federal government to receive additional COVID-19 rapid antigen tests with longer expiry dates, ranging from September to December 2024,” an Alberta Health spokesperson said in an email.

“The tests will begin arriving in Alberta [in the] next few weeks.”

The shipments are expected to include the BTNX, Panbio, Artron and Roche brands.

According to the province, rapid tests will be provided free of charge through participating community pharmacies, until mid-December, as long as supplies last.

Dr. Pant Pai is wearing a black blazer and standing in front of a scientific poster
Dr. Nitika Pant Pai is an associate professor in the department of medicine at McGill University. (Nitika Pant Pai)

Dr. Nitika Pant Pai, who has studied the use of rapid antigen tests, is disappointed to hear so many tests have gone unused and will be discarded in Alberta.

“These could have been used in other parts of the world where there are no tests,” said Pai, associate professor in the department of medicine at McGill University and a senior research scientist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.

“This is wisdom in hindsight. Could we have done something better if we knew that they were expiring in six months? Could we have rolled them out … or given them away to other parts of the world where people are still suffering from COVID?”

Pai welcomes Alberta’s decision to order more kits. But she said testing fatigue is a concern.

“All of us are tired of testing. But the good part about testing is that when you know you have symptoms and you get tested, you’re actually empowering yourself to take the next best action plan.”

That includes staying home when you are sick, which continues to prevent transmission and protect others, she said.

“At this point, it’s a matter of responsibility. And that, I think, is very important and the messaging has to be clear about that,” Pai said.

“It’s always a good idea to be proactive, not just about your health, but public health. And those are the lessons that COVID has taught us.”

Dr. Dan Gregson of the University of Calgary is not surprised by news that expired rapid tests will be discarded.

“I think that the government has tried to ensure that we have enough kits for people who want to do testing,” said Gregson, an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, specializing in infectious diseases and medical microbiology.

“And the uptake has been decreasing over time as the situation changes with regards to COVID.”

According to Gregson, people who are symptomatic should still be staying home for the first five days of the illness.

Since the vast majority of Albertans are not eligible for costly PCR testing, which requires lab processing, Gregson believes there is still value in testing with a home kit.

“If it’s going to change your behaviour — if you’re going to say that ‘if I test positive, I’m going to wear a mask after I’m at home for five days’ — that’s helpful.” 

Gregson said the rapid tests can also help higher risk Albertans, including those eligible for treatments such as Paxlovid.

“It gives you the option of testing at home and, if you’re positive, not having to go through Health Link to get a PCR test done,” he said, adding high-risk Albertans should follow up with a PCR test if their rapid test is negative.

He recommends swabbing both the nose and throat to increase sensitivity of the test.

And repeat testing is important, too, he said, because rapid tests can come back negative early in the illness when viral loads are low.

“You can improve your sensitivity by doing repeat testing over time — three or four times during that initial phase of your illness — to try and increase the sensitivity. But nothing’s 100 per cent.”

COVID-19 testing guidance can be found on the Alberta government website. Information on which pharmacies offer the free rapid COVID-19 tests can be found here.

“Albertans can also connect with their local pharmacy and ask them to order in no-cost rapid antigen tests from their pharmacy wholesaler to be made available,” an Alberta Health spokesperson said.

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