Rapid test market is 'the wild west,' says business owner — but N.L. government says it has no control

·4 min read
Retail outlets across Newfoundland and Labrador are selling multiple brands of rapid tests for different prices.  (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Retail outlets across Newfoundland and Labrador are selling multiple brands of rapid tests for different prices. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

A Newfoundland and Labrador retailer says a lack of free COVID-19 rapid antigen testing and little provincial government regulation has turned the rapid test market into the "wild west."

Peg Norman, owner of the Travel Bug in downtown St. John's, says she decided to sell rapid tests at cost rather than make a profit on them because she believes people shouldn't have to pay for them at all.

And now that there is a market for them, she says the lack of regulation is "shocking."

"People are desperate for that simple tool, and because government has decided not to hand them out to everybody who requires them, people are just grasping at straws, trying to find access to these tests," Norman said. "It's opened up this whole kettle of fish."

CBC News reviewed several retail and online options for purchasing a rapid test, and found that prices vary depending on the store and region of the province.

Norman charges $10 for one and $42 for a pack of five — her costs, including expenses to bring them in, like shipping, she said.

Various retail outlets across the province are selling multiple brands of rapid tests for different prices. Marie's Mini Mart sells a single rapid test for $14.99 and two rapid tests for $24.99, while Pipers sells a single rapid test for $14.99, plus tax. A pharmacy in Happy Valley-Goose Bay charges $46 for two rapid tests.

Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

Norman said finding a rapid test distributor was a difficult process — and she received no guidance from the government.

"I wanted to bring them in because people just want to be able to get access to a rapid test. Then they want to have that ability to be able to, you know, make a judgment about their activities and who they're going to see and not going to see."

N.L. government says it has 'no control' over sale of rapid tests

Newfoundland and Labrador is one of three provinces that is not widely distributing rapid tests for free. Instead the province is distributing them to high-risk settings, like health-care facilities, and to students and staff in schools. Residents who want a rapid test and can't access one through those avenues usually have to buy one in a store or online — and the provincial government says it has no say in what those stores charge.

"The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has no control over the retail of rapid antigen tests by vendors. Retail outlets that sell rapid tests source their own stock and are not supplied any tests from the federal supply," said a statement provided to CBC News by the Health Department.

CBC News has asked for an interview with Health Minister John Haggie, but a spokesperson said he wasn't available.

Health Canada regulates the importation and sale of COVID-19 testing devices in Canada, and has a list of approved self-testing devices on its website, but a public health expert says the provincial government should also have a role.

"They could absolutely impose limits related to price gouging, for example. That's really not uncommon to do when there is a crisis," said Tara Moriarty, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Toronto.

The federal government has distributed 140 million rapid tests among the provinces, and the provincial government said it had distributed 4,932,770 as of Tuesday, with 1.4 million tests remaining in storage. According to the provincial government, the federal government has indicated it will provide more tests.

Affordability a barrier for access: Moriarty

While rapid tests don't always detect early infection, Moriarty said, they are useful when taken multiple times.

"They're important for people to know when they shouldn't be around other people, when they could potentially be infecting them," she said.

Lisa Xing/CBC
Lisa Xing/CBC

Earlier this week, 34 community organizations and health-care providers signed a letter calling on the provincial government to increase access to rapid tests, especially for vulnerable people and low wage workers.

"We recognize the concerns, and continue working with partners and stakeholders as we monitor the COVID-19 situation in our province and adjust appropriately," said the Health Department in a statement in response.

In March, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Public Health was being strategic with rapid test distribution.

The provincial government is still providing free COVID-19 PCR tests in select circumstances, but those who are sick and don't meet the criteria have to take a rapid test. If they can't access or afford a rapid test, they have to self-isolate, even if they aren't sure if they have COVID-19.

As of Friday, the government has made no commitment to increasing access to rapid tests.

Moriarty said affordability is an "enormous barrier" for accessing rapid tests in Newfoundland and Labrador, and without increased access, some will opt not to get tested at all.

"We need to financially support things like rapid testing, ensure that people have the tools that they need to prevent themselves from getting infected and to prevent infecting other people."

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