Health Canada has changed its stance on the use of at-home COVID-19 test kits and is now considering applications from both international and domestic suppliers for devices that would be used for screening, rather than diagnostic purposes.
In June, Health Canada stated it would not be reviewing applications for at-home test kits, sparking backlash from some public health experts who argued these tests could help detect the large swath of COVID-19 cases that go unreported.
In a statement to CTVNews.ca on Monday evening, Cole Davidson, a spokesperson for the federal minister of health, said as new information has become available about the potential value of self-testing devices, Health Canada has revised its position.
Davidson said the agency’s previous position was "in relation to the use of home tests for diagnostic purposes."
"Health Canada is now considering applications for home testing devices for screening purposes. Health Canada is open to reviewing all testing solutions. This includes approaches that use self-collection and/or at-home test kits, in particular for screening purposes," the statement reads.
The news comes a day after Health Minister Patty Hajdu took to social media to clarify remarks made by a Health Canada spokesperson in a Globe and Mail article that said the benefits of self-testing don’t outweigh the risks.
1/ Early diagnosis is critical to slowing and reducing the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. We made emergency changes to allow faster access to COVID-19 tests in Canada, and Health Canada has already authorized a number of testing devices.— Patty Hajdu (@PattyHajdu) August 31, 2020
The spokesperson’s remarks were similar to those on the Health Canada website.
"Without the guidance of a health care professional, there is a significant risk that a patient could: use the home test kit improperly or misinterpret the results," the website reads. "It may also be impossible for health care agencies to collect home test results. This information is key to important public health decisions involving disease control during a pandemic."
Hajdu’s office said that language would soon be revised to reflect Health Canada’s new position.
Other public health representatives had also previously cautioned against the use of at-home testing kits.
Last week, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said while innovation is taking place in this realm, there are limits to the current technology.
"If it's done in a sort of a haphazard way and not with a specific criteria in mind, then what might happen is that you might actually create more problems, confusion than the actual benefits because you might get maybe a higher risk of I would say what we would call false negative result and so on," he said during a press briefing in Ottawa.
Dr. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said the move to consider at-home COVID-19 test kits for screening purposes is a "significant change" and one that’s especially important as kids return to school.
"As a screening tool, saliva tests would let parents test their kids, and themselves, regularly. If a positive result appears, then the instructions on this test should tell the person to go to an assessment centre for a PCR (medical) test. This would mean we can stop telling parents to check their kids for symptoms that usually don’t even appear in children, and direct them to use this screening tool instead," he told CTVNews.ca.
"We have already lost valuable weeks dithering about this, it will take some time to get this manufactured and distributed, but I expect this to be a game changer."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the first at-home test kit for COVID-19 by health-care diagnostics company LabCorp in April. The kit includes a Q-tip-style cotton swab for collection of nasal samples, which are then mailed back to the company and tested internally.