Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at LifeLabs after being logged upon receipt at the company’s lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. The doctor overseeing Canada’s COVID-19 antibody research says we should get the first glimpse of how many Canadians may already have had COVID-19 by the middle of this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at LifeLabs after being logged upon receipt at the company’s lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. The doctor overseeing Canada’s COVID-19 antibody research says we should get the first glimpse of how many Canadians may already have had COVID-19 by the middle of this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

First glimpse of Canada’s true COVID-19 infection rate expected mid-July

At least 105,000 Canadians have tested positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus was identified

The national immunity task force has started testing thousands of blood samples for COVID-19 antibodies and should be able to produce a more detailed picture of how many Canadians have been infected with the novel coronavirus within a couple of weeks.

It will be much longer, however, before we know more about what kind of protection against future infection having the antibodies provides, said Dr. Timothy Evans, executive director of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force.

Plus, said Evans, most of the people whose blood is being tested will not be informed of the results because of how the blood is being collected for testing.

“There won’t be an opportunity for individuals to find out their status,” said Evans, who is also director of the McGill School of Population and Global Health.

At least 105,000 Canadians have tested positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus was identified in January, while many others were sick but couldn’t get tested because provinces were limiting who could access the procedure until just a few weeks ago.

Evans also said a significant number of people get the infection and show no symptoms and will have no clue they were ever sick. Evans said immunity testing in other countries has suggested the actual infection rate is 10 to 20 times more than the number of confirmed cases.

There are multiple prongs to the task force’s plan to figure out the true infection rate here, starting with running antibody tests on 40,000 samples collected from people who donated blood to Canadian Blood Services and Hema Quebec since May. Evans said about 1,600 of those samples are being run through the test kits every day now, and analyses are already under way on the results.

“Hopefully within the next two weeks we will have an initial first number,” he said.

The first results will reveal how many samples showed antibodies, but include no specifics like whether they are male or female or where they live.

“By the end of the month of July, we expect to have a more broken down picture of what we call the seroprevalence, the presence of antibodies in the blood, that will look at it by age group and geographic location,” Evans said.

PHOTOS: B.C.’s top doc picks up personalized Fluevog shoes, tours mural exhibition

Evans said Canadian Blood Services can’t trace back the samples to the actual patients who gave them, so positive antibody tests will not be reported back for anyone who donated blood outside of Quebec. He said Hema Quebec said it might be possible to identify the patients but hasn’t yet decided if it will do so.

Another testing program is now beginning on 25,000 blood samples taken from pregnant women, using blood routinely drawn during the first trimester to screen for sexually transmitted infections and check for immunity to other illnesses like rubella. COVID-19 antibody testing will be added to that list for all pregnant women in Canada, going back all the way to December. The women will be informed if they test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, said Evans.

Evans said there are also about 30,000 blood samples held in provincial labs that are being tested for antibodies.

He said together these projects can provide a piecemeal picture of the infection rate across the country, though it won’t be a truly representative sample until a national household survey can be run. That isn’t going to happen until the portable antibody tests become reliable, but a plan is being developed with Statistics Canada so it’s ready when the tests are.

“We’d love to have a test that didn’t require a formal blood draw, but rather a pin prick but we’re not quite there yet,” he said. “There’s some things on the horizon. We’re trying to get those validated quickly but we still haven’t got what I would call a good portable test that could be used in the home.”

The tests the task force is using now require only a small amount of blood — less than 1/20th of a teaspoon, generally — but it is still more than what comes from a finger prick.

Evans said understanding how many people got infected can help drive policy decisions about where to vaccinate first, the impact specific public health measures might have had in some settings like long-term care centres, hospitals and schools, or communities that have been hit particularly hard.

The task force also has a two-year mandate to try to look at what kind of protection someone has from having antibodies, as well as how long the levels of antibodies last in a person’s blood. Evans said those studies are just getting underway and will take time, including looking to see whether people who have the antibodies get infected during a second or third wave of the pandemic.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

CanadaCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

NDP Leader John Horgan, left, speaks as local candidate Ravi Kahlon listens during a campaign stop at Kahlon’s home in North Delta, B.C., on April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
One man is dead after a shooting in Fleetwood Sunday evening. (Shane MacKichan photos)
One dead after targeted shooting in Surrey

Incident took place near shopping complex at the corner of 152 Street and Fraser Highway

(Black Press Media files)
‘Potentially damaging’ winds expected in Metro Vancouver

Wind is expected to pick up late Sunday night

Items collected from last year’s Ocean Park Food Drive. (Contributed file photo)
Ocean Park Food Drive expands, open to residents south of 32 Avenue

Homeowners south of 32 Avenue and west of 160 Street encouraged to put donations on doorstep

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

A pedestrian makes their way through the snow in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

In British Columbia and the Prairies, forecasters are calling for above-average snowfall levels

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

A Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Langley RCMP issued a $2,300 fine to the Riverside Calvary church in Langley in the 9600 block of 201 Street for holding an in-person service on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, despite a provincial COVID-19 related ban (Dan Ferguson/Black Press Media)
Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service

Calvary church was fined $2,300 for defying provincial order

The Abbotsford Police Department is investigating a shooting on Adair Avenue on Saturday night. (Photo by Dale Klippenstein)
Drive-by shooting in Abbotsford targeted home with young children, police say

Investigators believe home was mistakenly targeted by assailants

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

Most Read