Federal government's challenge in disposing excess COVID-19 rapid tests

According to an internal memo obtained through federal access-to-information laws, the Canadian government is facing challenges in disposing of a stockpile of 39 million extra rapid tests for COVID-19. As the Omicron variant spread across Canada in late 2021, the government purchased rapid antigen tests and distributed them to the provinces for at-home testing. However, with fewer people now getting tested outside of healthcare settings, the government has more tests than it knows what to do with.

The memo, signed on March 25, acknowledges the difficulty of divesting such a large quantity of tests and suggests that disposal of expired tests may be necessary. Rapid tests were considered important in early 2022, as regular testing capacity was limited to specific cases in most provinces. Canada has spent approximately $5 billion on rapid tests since the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite a decrease in Omicron infections and the lifting of public health restrictions, the government continued to accumulate tests in case of another wave of infections. As of March 21, there were 93 million tests in stock. Provinces and territories now have enough tests to provide eight tests to each Canadian, and the federal health department plans to keep 55 million in reserve for future emergencies, leaving 39 million extra tests.

The memo suggests several options for off-loading the tests, including shipping them abroad to countries in need or paying the manufacturers to take them back. However, no action has been taken on these recommendations so far. Some tests are being donated to non-profits, public institutions, and charities through the government's online surplus site, and they are also being used for employee testing programs within government departments.

The memo highlights the challenge of the tests' short shelf life, usually lasting only one or two years. While no tests have been discarded yet, 2.1 million are either damaged, expired, or considered non-compliant and cannot be distributed. Another 38,722 are expected to expire in August and September, with most tests expiring in 2024.

The government intends to come up with a plan for disposing of the unused tests after exploring all deployment and divestment options. Financially and environmentally sound disposal will be considered only when all other avenues have been exhausted and the tests are ineligible for distribution.


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