TORONTO — As frustration mounts in Canada at the leaden weight of lockdowns and the glacial pace of vaccinations, a consortium of some of the country’s largest companies has launched a rapid testing program with the aim of protecting their 350,000 employees and publishing a playbook for businesses across Canada on how to reopen safely.
The program is believed to be the first of its kind among the Group of 7 industrialized nations, and has already attracted the attention of the Biden administration.
The 12 companies, including Canada’s biggest airline and grocery chain, have worked together for four months, creating a 400-page operating manual on how to run rapid antigen tests in various work settings. They began piloting the tests in their workplaces this month, and expect to expand the program to 1,200 small and medium-sized businesses.
They also plan to share their test results with government health authorities, greatly raising test counts in the country and providing an informal study of the virus’s spread among asymptomatic people.
“It’s like wartime — people get together to do something that’s in the interest of everybody,” said Marc Mageau, senior vice president of refining and logistics with Suncor Energy, the country’s largest oil producer, which introduced the testing to its employees this month.
The program faces some inherent challenges — after an outbreak last year at the White House, antigen tests became known for generating both false negatives and a false sense of security. They are also in short supply in Canada, with some experts arguing they should be reserved for schools and nursing homes rather than nonessential businesses.
While vaccines are considered the world’s best weapon for defeating the pandemic, most experts believe it will take months, if not a full year, for Canada to reach vaccination levels that allow workplaces to safely return to their pre-Covid operations.
Canada is in the grip of a second pandemic wave that has driven infections to record levels and deaths to about 19,800. In response, many parts of the country are in lockdown, with restaurants, theaters and nonessential retail shops closed.
The Canadian economy has contracted about 5 percent during the pandemic. Some industries like real estate and manufacturing have done well, but ones that depend on public crowds, like entertainment and hospitality, have seen their employment plummet.
“Think about downtown Toronto: No one is there anymore. Entertainment — it’s all stopped,” said Joshua Gans, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto who acted as an adviser on the project and is the author of “The Pandemic Information Gap: The Brutal Economics of Covid-19.”
“The time has come to work out how to actually reopen the sectors that have been closed,” he said.
The companies in the consortium were brought together in the spring by Ajay Agrawal, the founder of the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab, which helps science and technology start-ups. They were inspired by the most Canadian of muses: Margaret Atwood, the author.
“How soon can we have a cheap, buy-it-at-the-drugstore, self-administered test?” Ms. Atwood asked during a virtual meeting last May of business leaders and others tasked with brainstorming ideas for economic recovery during the pandemic.
The problem, the group posited, was the “information gap” — since there was no way to tell who might be an asymptomatic carrier, everyone was treated as a potential threat.
Ms. Atwood envisioned something like a home pregnancy test.
“That would be a game changer,” she said.
Realizing that the government was overwhelmed by the health crisis, the group decided to take on the task itself, forming a consortium led by the…