Air Canada, Suncor and other companies launch ‘rapid screening consortium’ to test for coronavirus

An Air Canada flight maneuvers on the taxiways at Toronto Pearson International Airport on December 1, 2020.

In another strange season of spectator-free NHL hockey, something exceptional has started happening at Toronto Maple Leafs games.

As they entered Scotiabank arena for the last few home meetings, non-playing Leafs employees have undergone rapid-antigen tests for COVID-19, receiving the results within about 15 minutes.

It’s the product not of a public-health agency edict, but an innovative new screening program launched largely independent of government, and built on surprising corporate co-operation.

With the help of University of Toronto business professors, 12 major Canadian corporations have banded together to develop a system for quickly screening workers — and hopefully speeding up the economy’s restart.

The “

rapid-screening consortium

” may be the only group of its sort in the Western world.

It was an idea partly inspired by novelist Margaret Atwood and involves a surprising commitment by the corporations involved. They have not only worked with each other over the last several months to put together the initiative, but pledged to share the system for free with other firms, including their competitors.

Air Canada has even agreed to work with rival airlines like WestJet to help them implement the screening program, says Ajay Agrawal, founder of the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab and an overseer of the initiative.

“I have certainly never seen it before,” the Rotman School of Management professor said Sunday of the cross-industry linking of hands.

“Our economy is crushed,” said Agrawal. “By taking off their Air Canada badge and their Suncor badge and their Rogers badge … they took on a sense of national urgency, and they saw how much help they were giving each other.”

The goal is for the rapid-screening initiative to spread throughout the business world, even to small companies that might never have thought they could dabble in virus testing.

It’s being helped along by a blue-chip

crew of advisers

that includes two retired generals, Canada’s Chuck Lamarre and a former commander of Britain’s joint forces command.

Joshua Gans, another Rotman professor and the Creative Destruction Lab’s chief economist, says the concept flows from the issues he outlined in a book he had published months ago,

The Pandemic Information Gap

. Shuttering much of the economy, he concluded, was a result of having too little data, and being forced to treat everyone as potentially infected.

“We didn’t have to have all these lockdowns and restrictions if could just work out who amongst the population was infectious and isolate them,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come up with that idea, that’s for sure, but it was not really appreciated at all.”

COVID-19 testing has focused to date on people with symptoms or who were in close contact with infected individuals. And it has used the gold-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which look for the virus’s genetic material. They are considered the most accurate, but can take a full day or longer to process in busy labs.

Rapid tests generally seek out antigens, pieces of the virus that trigger the immune system. They are not as precise, but require less expertise for swabbing and produce results on the spot in as little as a quarter hour.

The federal government has purchased 38 million rapid-antigen tests and started distributing them to provinces, but they do not appear to be in wide use yet.

A growing number of experts, though, are calling for them to be used to screen asymptomatic Canadians and get a better handle on where the virus is spreading — accuracy limitations notwithstanding.

The

Creative Destruction Lab

was founded in 2012, a non-profit whose goal is to harness the expertise of established businesses to help startups as they try to commercialize scientific innovation.

The goal was to help create equity in those firms of $100 million within five years, says Agrawal. In just eight years, the mentored companies’ worth has actually swelled to $8 billion, he said. The lab has expanded now to eight other universities in Canada and elsewhere, including Oxford.

The lab turned its attention to COVID-19 earlier this year and eventually set up what it called the “vision council,” hoping to identify the pandemic-related issues in greatest need of innovative solutions. The

council consisted

of a who’s who of Canadian and international corporate CEOs, including the president of China’s Alibaba — the world’s largest online retailer — the global head of McKinsey consultants, and Loblaw’s Galen Weston. Also among them was Mark Carney, former head of Canadian and U.K. central banks, and Michael Sabia, now the federal deputy minister of finance.

But there were also some more surprising big thinkers, including Atwood, British novelist and game writer Naomi Alderman and opera singer Measha Brueggergosman.

The council eventually settled on the need to test more widely, to better identify the small minority of people who have COVID-19 in the hope of opening businesses sooner.

Atwood asked why there couldn’t be something for COVID as convenient as a pregnancy test, recalls Gans.

Soon enough, the lab was tasked with starting a program and Agrawal managed to recruit 12 diverse companies to develop a pilot system: Air Canada, Rogers, Scotiabank, MLSE, Magna, CPP Investments, Genpact, Loblaw, MDA, Nutrien, Shoppers Drug Mart and Suncor.

Rogers, Air Canada, Suncor, MLSE and Air Canada recently launched the first pilot projects in Ontario and Alberta using tests provided by the provinces, with about 2,000 screens administered as of Sunday.

It all raises the issue of why it took the private sector — as opposed to government — to implement what seems like a sensible way to try to hasten the return to normalcy.

That’s a fair question, says Agrawal diplomatically, “but not one I can answer.”

“This is a national problem,” says U of T colleague Gans. “I would have liked national, provincial leadership on this … (But) what I’ve learnt is there are so many issues that in the midst of a crisis, it’s very, very hard to do them all.”

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques