48,000 Canadians asked to take blood sample for coronavirus survey

In the first study of its kind, Statistics Canada is mailing out test kits to tens of thousands of people to study the prevalence of coronavirus in the country.

The survey involves asking 48,000 Canadians to poke their fingers and return a blood sample. That sample will be sent to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg where it will be tested for the presence of coronavirus antibodies. In order to get a good result, the agency is hoping for a minimum 45 per cent response rate.

Statistics Canada started sending out the kits — which include gloves, alcohol swabs, a needle for poking your finger and paper for the blood sample — in November. The survey will continue through March.

Leanne Murray, one of 3,500 Prince Edward Islanders targeted for the survey, was surprised to receive the kit in the mail. She wasn’t sure it was legitimate.

Leanne Murray of Prince Edward Island opens the coronavirus antibody test kit she received from Statistics Canada. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

“It would have been nice to hear something about it on the news, that they were even being mailed out to random people,” said Murray.

(There was some news coverage of the study back in November, but it received little attention in the months since then.)

Murray said she called Statistics Canada to confirm they are indeed conducting the study, but did not hear back immediately.

Personal results protected

Peter Jiao of Statistics Canada confirmed to CBC News that the study is legitimate.

Given that this is an official study of Statistics Canada, Jiao said, the privacy of the results will be protected by the federal Statistics Act. In addition to the usual protocols the agency uses, Jiao said Health Canada was consulted for ethical considerations of gathering this kind of health information.

[We] do hope that Canadians see the value in taking the time.– Peter Jiao of Statistics Canada

Packages being sent back to Statistics Canada contain no personal identifying information. That means that if they are opened by someone who is not authorized, the blood samples can’t be linked back to the sender, he said.

Statistics Canada had considered using medical professionals in some capacity to collect the samples, but determined in order to get the volume of samples it needs, self-collection was the best option.

“We do understand there is a level of discomfort associated with this test, but do hope that Canadians see the value in taking the time,” Jiao said.

Respondents get results

The test will be able to determine whether someone contracted COVID-19 and whether they developed symptoms or not. It will also identify whether the antibodies were the result of receiving a vaccine.

From the tests, Statistics Canada will produce a report that shows the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 nationally and by province and territory.

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Respondents will also receive a letter with their antibody status.

Feedback from the public on the survey has been generally positive, said Jiao, with people particularly interested in getting their personal results back.

Murray said she would be happy to do the test, once she gets a bit more information from Statistics Canada.

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