Canadian military looking to conduct its own coronavirus testing

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The Canadian military has embarked on a plan to acquire its own coronavirus testing capacity, senior defence officials told a House of Commons committee today.

The plan is still in the early stages, but Rear-Admiral Rebecca Patterson, commander of the Canadian Forces Health Services Group, said the Armed Forces is working to ramp up testing — both rapid and laboratory tests — for those in uniform.

"The Canadian Armed Forces, since the beginning of the COVID crisis, has been acquiring, slowly but surely, along with the rest of Canada, testing capability," Patterson told the defence committee, which is examining the impact of the pandemic on the military.

Being spread across the country, the military has had to rely largely on the public health system for testing.

Patterson told the multi-party committee that the surveillance testing the military has done itself has focused on hot spots and areas where there are confirmed cases, but has been expanding.

To date, Health Canada has given the green light to more than three dozen different tests for COVID-19. Only a handful of them are considered rapid or "point of care" tests.

Provincial health authorities, which now have 3.8 million rapid tests at their disposal, are trying to figure out how best to make use of them.

The military is largely in the same boat with its limited supply. "As we roll out our Canadian capability, the focus of our ability to do surveillance testing is focusing on deployed operations first," Patterson said.

"We have deployed testing capability with the Royal Canadian Navy. We have it at sites where people will embark [for deployments], such as [the military air base at] Trenton. Otherwise, we are using testing wherever Canadian Forces members find themselves."

Patterson assured the committee that the military at home and overseas has access to rapid coronavirus tests. At the moment, a little more than 2,000 troops, aircrew and sailors are serving in missions abroad.

The COVID-19 test considered to be the most accurate is the one performed in a lab; it usually takes at least a day to provide results. Rapid tests can be processed in as little as 15 minutes, wherever the patient is located, but they are considered somewhat less reliable than lab results.

The discussion on testing at committee was prompted, in part, by reports earlier this year that a troop transport plane, bound for Latvia, was forced to turn around after it was discovered a security screener in Trenton had tested positive for the virus.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the chief of staff at Canadian Joint Operations Command — the headquarters that oversees all operations, foreign and domestic — said procedures have been put in place to prevent a repeat of such an incident.

"We have taken the necessary steps to ensure we are not threat vectors in the areas [overseas] where we perform our tasks," Fortin said.