British Columbia

Free rapid COVID-19 tests coming to B.C. pharmacies, health officials announce

Rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 will soon be available in some B.C. pharmacies, but at first only people over the age of 70 will have access to them, health officials announced Wednesday.

5-pack tests will be free of charge, but limited to people over 70 years old for now

A health care worker hands out COVID-19 rapid tests to people at the Bear Creek rapid test distribution centre in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 18. Five-packs of rapid tests are now available free of cost at some pharmacies for people over the age of 70. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 will soon be available in some B.C. pharmacies, but at first only people over the age of 70 will have access to them, health officials announced Wednesday.

Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters packs containing five test kits will be distributed free of charge to those who are eligible and who need them, beginning as early as Friday in select pharmacies.

More than 865,000 tests have already been set aside to be distributed through pharmacies, officials said.

According to the province, the tests are currently being limited to people over the age of 70 because they are at highest risk of severe illness, but as the supply of tests grows, the program will be expanded to include younger age groups and more pharmacies.

There will be a limit of one pack per person for every 28-day period, the province says, and a B.C. Services Card is required. Officials noted they're meant to be picked up by people who are not currently sick and then saved for later.

He said 12 million more tests are expected to arrive in B.C. in the next four weeks. 

Between Dec. 13 and Feb. 22, the province deployed more than 14.8 million tests out of 22.2 million received, with the bulk going to schools, hospital workers, testing sites, long-term care and assisted living, and rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provided an update on the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday afternoon. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Also on Wednesday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province will decide when to lift restrictions based on the data available, explaining that B.C. is in a different place in the pandemic from other parts of the country and the world.

She noted that while case numbers are falling, in the last few days, four people in their 40s have died of COVID-19.

New vaccine coming to B.C.

Henry also addressed Health Canada's approval of Novavax's vaccine, calling it "great news." She said shipments of the vaccine are headed to B.C. and should be available within the next week to 10 days.

The Novavax shot is the first protein subunit COVID-19 vaccine to be available in Canada, and Henry said it could be used for people who've had severe reactions to their first dose of an mRNA vaccine.

Protein subunit vaccines contain harmless and purified pieces of the virus protein, which have been selected for their ability to trigger immunity, according to Health Canada.

"This is an interesting vaccine. It's one we've been watching for some time,'' said Henry. "No human-derived materials were involved in its development. It uses an insect cell line, which is really cool — a moth cell line."

She said there is also an immune system booster in the vaccine that is made out of soap bark tree extract.

In addition, she said shipments of the antiviral drug Paxlovid, a treatment for the disease, are also on the way. The treatment will be prioritized for people who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable.

As of Tuesday, 90.5 per cent of those five and older in B.C. had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 85.9 per cent a second dose.

But, as of Feb. 14, only 58 per cent of British Columbians had received a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Research company Ipsos conducted an online poll for the B.C. Pharmacy Association that found that 56 per cent of survey respondents don't plan to get their boosters right away. Half of these respondents say they will get it eventually but it's not currently a priority.

The Ministry of Health says it's aware of this, but impressed the importance of a booster dose.

"Like the first two doses, getting a booster shot makes a difference in terms of community transmission and helps blunt transmission and serious consequences in our communities," the ministry said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

With files from Courtney Dickson, Missy Johnson, and The Canadian Press