Search “pharmacy rapid tests” on Twitter and plenty of the results include Canadians who are angry that they can’t purchase at-home rapid antigen COVID-19 tests at their local pharmacy.
Many complain that pharmacies are charging $40 to administer tests that they believe pharmacists received for free from the federal government.
Kristen Watt, a pharmacist in Southampton, Ont., is doing her best to educate Canadians and correct the misinformation. “The tests we administer for $40, we bought those tests. They were not free from the government. The cost is for test administration, interpretation and record provision."
There are specific provincial government and Health Canada programs that supply rapid tests free to small- and medium-sized businesses, but those tests are not approved for individual sale.
“Pharmacies are getting a lot of heat for the inability to provide these tests to the general public for their own use, while being able to administer them at a cost in the pharmacy and it's simply because we're following the rules,” Watt says.
Watt says out of 88 rapid test kits approved by Health Canada, four are approved for at-home use. Every other one requires healthcare provider supervision. The four approved tests are the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test, QuickVue At-Home OTC COVID-19 Test, the Cue COVID-19 Test for Home and the Lucira Check It Test Kit.
Watt says Ellume is not available in Canada, while QuickVue and Cue have no place on their websites for purchase and the Lucira website only ships to the United States.
This lack of availability in Canada is in contrast to other countries.
According to Quartz, U.S. shoppers can purchase a BinaxNOW two-pack for $23.99. QuickVue tests are $15 each.
In Germany, grocery stores are selling rapid tests for under $1 each, while in India, they cost $3.50. In the United Kingdom, residents can have free packs of rapid tests mailed to their homes by the National Health Service.
Certain Canadian provinces have begun increasing access to tests, including through some testing at school boards. This week, New Brunswick started offering free, at-home rapid tests to anyone who wants them at 20 distribution centres across the province.
“We think we should be able to sell rapid tests,” Watt says. “Absolutely, I think everybody should have a box of them in their home. There are limitations. There is a potential for false negatives or false positives, so someone may not isolate when they should or may lose time at work when they don’t need to. There’s a potential for a false sense of security. But with good education, these tests can be provided.
“We are talking about a population of people who monitor their own blood glucose and adjust potentially life threatening medication based on that. People can handle this, if we have proper approval, proper policy guidelines and proper training.”
In a statement, Health Canada says its “consistent approach throughout the pandemic has ensured that the testing devices available for sale in Canada meet safety, effectiveness and quality requirements.
“Health Canada assesses the safety, efficacy and quality of medical devices, and regulates the sale and importation for sale of medical devices in Canada but does not have the authority to influence where the devices are going to be put for sale or medical device pricing. Please contact tests manufacturers about availability of their tests in stores.
“Note that once approved by Health Canada, the use of medical devices, including COVID-19 testing devices, falls within the practice of medicine, which is under provincial/territorial jurisdiction. Provinces have the authority to perform independent validations of test kits to be used in an off-label manner.”
Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, has also tried to correct misinformation on Twitter.
“@OntPharmacists advocates for more free distribution of rapid tests in #pharmacies and elsewhere as an effective tool to help combat COVID especially in congregate settings like schools. Get the tests out and into the hands of as many people as possible," he tweeted last week.
“Blaming #pharmacists or suggesting it is pharmacy organizations that are creating challenges for others to get rapid tests or flu shots is false. Facts matter. We should work together to collectively advocate & see each other as complementary. Support each other.”