New COVID-19 testing strategy curbs workplace outbreaks

A team of researchers from the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) is studying how frequent rapid COVID-19 testing in workplaces can prevent COVID-19 transmission and stop outbreaks from becoming more widespread.

Led by infectious disease specialist Dr. Cedric Yansouni, the study is partnering with businesses across Montreal that are experiencing outbreaks to provide rapid COVID-19 tests every three days for all staff members.

By testing every three days, the researchers are able to catch new and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 early, helping to prevent further transmission and containing the outbreak. This testing strategy also has the benefit of preventing businesses from having to shut down for long periods due to ongoing outbreaks.

“These rapid tests are a bit less sensitive, so they might miss cases, but they have the advantage of being much more ‘scale-up-able.’ They can be decentralized to many locations, for example, businesses throughout Quebec. We want to determine whether using them in this way can reduce outbreaks,” says Dr. Yansouni.

Dr. Jonathon Campbell

The groundwork for Dr. Yansouni’s study was laid by two previous studies by co-investigator Dr. Jonathon Campbell. In the first, Dr. Campbell showed that saliva-based COVID-19 tests are as accurate as the ubiquitous nasopharyngeal swabs (swabs inserted into the nose), even among persons without symptoms. They are also more widely available, require fewer resources and are much less expensive.

“Nasopharyngeal swabs are very costly and resource intensive. You need a trained health professional to administer them,” says Dr. Campbell. “Saliva testing is accurate and can reduce costs associated with nasopharyngeal swabs by more than 60%.”

In the second study, Dr. Campbell showed that frequent testing using saliva tests and PCR-based analysis (the gold standard that is used across the country) appeared to be an effective way to help curtail workplace outbreaks. Dr. Yansouni and his team are taking this finding one step further, testing whether rapid tests that do not require the usual laboratory work can produce the same result when used for frequent COVID-19 testing in workplaces.

“We’re responding to the fact that laboratory capacity for testing has been a limiting factor throughout the pandemic. We are seeing if we can replicate Dr. Campbell’s finding and expand it,” says Dr. Yansouni.  “Instead of testing with a laboratory test, we are using rapid diagnostic tests that you can perform yourself.”

Another aspect of the study is determining whether self-administered COVID-19 tests provide reliable results. The only way to achieve widespread use of rapid tests is if people can perform them correctly without the help of a health care professional. Dr. Yansouni’s team is assessing whether self-testing is reliable enough to be used widely. This information is important because it could lead to health policy changes and reduce the burden testing has put on the health care system.

Overall, Dr. Yansouni’s study will assess the effectiveness, feasibility, cost, ability to prevent transmission and the acceptability of frequent COVID-19 testing in the workplace. The results of the study will help inform testing strategies to prevent outbreaks, keep businesses open, and ensure we have a strategy for future epidemics.

Dr. Yansouni and Dr. Campbell’s studies were made possible thanks to generous support from the Trottier Family Foundation and the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4), which is supported by the MUHC Foundation.

“It would be very unlikely that we would have performed this work without philanthropy,” says Dr. Campbell.

The Trottier Family Foundation’s support provided seed funding to allow the researchers to get their studies off the ground, resulting in a recent $205,000 from the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, plus in-kind support in the form of rapid testing kits. This is a testament to the power of philanthropy: seed funding from generous donors can be leveraged into government grants that magnify the impact of the original gift.