COVID-19 rapid test frenzy: Demand soars across Canada, prices surge for kits that are often unreliable

Rapid antigen tests are proving to be in such high demand across the country, people are lining up for hours, or resorting to unauthorized online sellers to get their hands on them.

On sites like Craigslist and Twitter, the tests are being sold for upwards of $350 for a box of 25. In cities like Toronto and Montreal, people are bearing the frigid weather in long queues in an attempt to snap up a box of the coveted tests.

Rapid tests are not always reliable, professor warns

Matthew S. Miller, associate professor in the M.G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University says the rapid tests are a useful tool to decrease the risk of transmitting the virus, but like all interventions, they are imperfect.

Rapid tests results really only represent a snapshot in time when the test was taken. Individuals can test negative one day, and positive the next, as infection progresses. Non-expert user error can also contribute to unreliable results.Matthew S. Miller, Associate Professor, M.G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research

That’s why rapid tests, which are meant for people not experiencing any symptoms, are most useful when combined with other interventions that are known to be effective in reducing risk of transmission, like getting vaccinated, masking up, and good ventilation in indoor spaces. Miller says the tests alone should not be interpreted as “carte blanche” to engage in activities that present a high possibility of transmitting the COVID-19 virus – especially to those who are vulnerable.

Naheed Dosani, health equity lead at Kensington Health in Toronto, says it’s heartbreaking to see tests that are meant to be distributed throughout the community being re-sold online and blames the government for their inadequate response.

“The rollout wasn’t thought out in a way to make sure that the most vulnerable people got access in the process,” he says. “Many people can’t afford to line up for hours. The most vulnerable amongst us will simply not be able to get access.”

He adds that the rapid tests were prioritized for businesses and are also being used on people who refused to be vaccinated.

“The government created a situation where there’s no supply and such a high demand and we see entities like Shoppers Drug Mart charging upwards of $40 per test,” he says. “The way rapid tests have been distributed in Ontario has inequity written all over it.”

Dosani says in Ontario and across the country, there should be more discussion on how the rapid tests are being prioritized.

“Governments should be working towards ensuring there’s enough rapid tests for every household, every single week, for free” he says.