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YVR, WestJet launch COVID-19 rapid test study for departing passengers

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and WestJet’s COVID-19 rapid test pilot project – the first of its kind in Canada – has officially taken off.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and WestJet’s COVID-19 rapid test pilot project – the first of its kind in Canada – has officially taken off.

Since its launch Friday morning, 38 people have taken part in the voluntary program so far  – which is available to passengers departing on domestic WestJet flights between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., said Tamara Vrooman, YVR’s CEO.

Results from the rapid antigen test, administered via a nasal swab, are available in less than 30 minutes.

Unlike Alberta’s program launched earlier this month – where international passengers are tested on arrival – the YVR study is integrated into the departure process, Vrooman said.

“The idea (in Alberta) is to try and reduce the 14-day quarantine, so when you arrive, you agree to take the full PCR test – the same kind of test that is used in the community – and then you go home…and if your results are negative, then quarantine is reduced,” she said.

“Ours is a rapid test…integrated into the security and the boarding procedures for departure, such that when you get on the plane, you can be confident that if you do have to travel, that there’s no COVID risk on board.”

YVR and WestJet partnered with Providence Health Care, which runs St. Paul’s Hospital, and the University of British Columbia to conduct the study.

At the end of the study, researchers will submit the results for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and the results will then be shared with public health officials.

Through the study, researchers will hopefully get an idea – through positive test results – of how many passengers are asymptomatic at the time of travel, said Dr. Don Sin, the study’s co-principal investigator, UBC medicine professor and respirologist with Providence.

“I think, depending on the rate, it might give assurance to the public that the risk of asymptomatic COVID-19 individuals showing up at the airports is very, very low,” he said.

If the rate isn’t low, then airports would likely need to establish this type of “routine testing” either at the airport or nearby, in order to quickly identify infectious individuals.

“So that too will give confidence, I think to the public, in terms of flying,” Sin said.

And while the test rolled out at YVR is a screening test, rather than a diagnostic test – meaning anyone who tests positive will still need to get a PCR test – the data collected from the study could also be used to get to a point where the second test isn’t needed, said Sin.

Another goal of the study is to develop a mouth-rinse rapid test, he said.

The study will run for about three months, Sin said.

Testing is done in a portable pod – a converted shipping container – located outside the WestJet domestic check-in area.

If the pilot is successful, the pod could be deployed in other settings, such as universities, schools or community organizations, Vrooman explained.

“I think it has the scalability and multi-use benefit,” she said. “Also, it allows us to really make sure that from a health, safety and privacy point of view that people are removed from the general population of the airport.”

The study will operate from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Monday to Friday. It’s open to domestic passengers on departing WestJet flights, who have not tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days, are between 19 to 80 years old and residents of British Columbia.

If someone tests positive with the rapid antigen test, they will then get a second, PCR test – the same test used at COVID-19 testing sites in the community – to confirm the positive result.

The PCR test will also be administered by the research team at the terminal, and the sample will be sent to the lab at St. Paul’s Hospital.

WestJet will cancel or rebook flights for these passengers at no charge, according to a joint statement from YVR and the airline.

 To register for the study, visit