A new study at Toronto's Pearson International Airport will examine quarantine periods for travellers to determine whether 14 days in isolation is necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Starting Thursday, passengers disembarking from international flights at Canada's largest airport will be invited to participate in the voluntary research conducted by McMaster HealthLabs (MHL), a non-profit organization made up of scientists and doctors from Hamilton's McMaster University, the Research Institute of St. Joseph's Hamilton and other Canadian schools.
"Quarantine was put in place when [COVID-19] was a mysterious disease and 14 days seemed to be a safe way of protecting people," said Dr. Marek Smieja, a medical microbiologist and professor at McMaster who co-authored the study.
MHL has also partnered with Air Canada and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to create the study.
Several months into the pandemic, this is now the time to reassess the quarantine period and see if it still makes sense, said Smieja.
"Today, we know an awful lot more about this disease, we have excellent lab tests to help guide us, and we think it's a good time to ask the question: do we need a long quarantine?" he said.
The researchers will ask volunteers to provide a swab sample when leaving the airport, along with two self-collected samples at the seven-day and 14-day mark during the government-mandated quarantine, Smieja explained.
Researchers want to learn how often these travellers test positive for the novel coronavirus at seven days and 14 days — and whether that data could be used to influence quarantine policies in the future, Smieja said.
Participants will find out their tests results within 48 hours after their sample is tested at the Research Institute of St. Joe's Hamilton.
Those who test negative will have to remain in quarantine, and those who test positive will have to visit an assessment clinic for another swab and public health professionals will follow up, said Smieja.
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Scientists will have some data within a month, and most of the information they need within six to eight weeks.
"This is meant to inform the discussion of whether the quarantine, and the methods we have for keeping people safe...if the data supports that or not," Smieja said.
The data could also help determine if an airport-based COVID-19 surveillance program is possible at [Pearson}, said John Gilmour, MHL's CEO in a news release.
The study comes as multiple flights arriving at the airport continue to report positive cases of COVID-19 on board.
Air Canada pushing for eased restrictions
Air Canada, which is backing the study, urged the federal government to ease travel restrictions last month and get rid the quarantine period for travellers from regions like the European Union, as those nations have removed the required quarantine period for Canadians.
However, there have been new flare-ups of the novel coronavirus in Europe and some countries there have re-imposed restrictions since July.
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The study is "extremely important" as it could provide an avenue to reconsider restrictions responsibly, based on science, said Dr. Jim Chung, the chief medical officer at Air Canada, in a news release.
At Pearson Airport Thursday, travellers volunteering for the study told CBC News they're hoping it could lead to shorter quarantine periods.
David Keegan, who went to visit his sick mother in Ireland, had to quarantine there for 14 days. He's now about to start another 14-day quarantine here.
"A month of quarantine for two weeks away," he lamented.
"I'm a Canadian living in Ireland and I'd like to be able to get home easier," said Stephanie Larkin, who had just completed her test at the airport.
A shorter quarantine wouldn't mean she'd opt to travel around the world, she said, but it would make essential travel less painful.
"If they reduce quarantine, it would definitely help."