An internal Health Canada memo says the feds have been unable to offload 39 million COVID rapid tests set to expire.
At the end of 2021, the federal government mass-purchased rapid antigen tests to help provinces test for future variants amid concerns of another wave. However, fewer and fewer people have used them to test for the respiratory virus since that juncture with COVID infections settling down.
As of March 21, 2023 the feds accumulated 93 million tests — spending roughly $5 billion on rapid tests since the pandemic began. At this time, the agency has approximately 39 million excess tests it no longer needs.
"Acknowledging the volumes of tests in play and the challenge of divesting such quantities over a time-bound period, it is expected that disposal of expired tests would be required," wrote staff in the March 25 memo to Health Canada's deputy minister.
The CBC obtained the memo through an access to information request.
By July 25, 2023, Health Canada confirmed it had over 90 million tests stockpiled. Though none have been binned, approximately 2.1 million tests are damaged, expired or considered "non-compliant" and can't be distributed.
Health Canada said they would keep 55 million in reserve for the next emergency. As of writing, the provinces and territories have enough supply to give Canadians eight COVID tests each.
The department recommended shipping the tests abroad or reselling to manufacturers, but neither has happened.
After failing to offload those tests, the feds revealed their short shelf-life of one to two years proved a significant obstacle. They expect another 38,722 tests to expire either next month or in September.
"In practice, offering tests with less than eight to 12 months of shelf life may present challenges," said the memo, though the specific reasons are redacted. Staff intend to devise a plan to dispose of unused tests shortly.
However, Health Canada told CBC they successfully donated some COVID tests to non-profits, public institutions and charities.
The agency is also reallocating some tests to other government departments for employee testing programs.
"The government of Canada has also been actively engaging with the World Health Organization, the Canadian Red Cross, other non-governmental organizations and private foundations to understand global demand better and explore the feasibility of international donation opportunities," said the department.
"Financially and environmentally sound disposal will be considered only when all deployment and divestment options have been exhausted, and tests are ineligible for distribution."