Tales of price-gouging and bootlegging pile up as Canadians hunt for rapid tests
Perhaps the most relevant comparison to the mad dash of scoring a rapid antigen test is the frenzied market for toilet paper that broke out in 2020.
Except this time, it’s not private businesses and manufacturers rushing to fill empty shelves at grocery stores for a basic commodity being hoarded in a panic due to the threat of a novel coronavirus.
Instead, what Canadians are experiencing is one consequence of government systems falling behind on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads rapidly from coast to coast. That surge in infections has strained the health-care system, forced new restrictions, and compelled some people to line up for hours, often to no avail or paying exorbitant fees, in an attempt to find scarce rapid antigen tests.
And now, despite the federal government promising to bring 140 million rapid tests to provinces and territories by the end of January, anger and frustration about the delays to access testing kits is reaching a boiling point.
To say that she was “pissed off” would be an understatement, Karen Reid explains.
Watching a fellow business owner use the rapid tests provided to him through the local chamber of commerce for his personal holiday gatherings instead of distributing them amongst his employees left Reid bewildered.
“This is something everyone is begging, borrowing and stealing to try to get access to right now, with exploding COVID cases,” said Reid, a Manitoba-based trucking company operator.
“And here we have business owners who say they are using these rapid tests for not only their personal use, but also so that their other friends could continue gathering as well. It’s really ridiculous.”
The business Reid was talking about is Hunter & Gunn, a barbershop in Winnipeg run by Jeremy Regan. It’s one of many businesses that obtained rapid tests from the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce during the winter holidays, through an online portal intended to be used for employee safety.
But on Christmas Day, Regan tweeted from the barbershop’s Twitter account: “Ordered 50 rapid tests thru the small business test portal this week. Tested our guests last night no +. Borrowed some to 2 different groups of friends to test before their Xmas dinner. Both friends turned up +. Both double vax.”
That tweet angered many Manitobans like Reid, particularly those who had cancelled their holiday plans amid rising COVID-19 infections in the province, and especially because they could not access rapid tests the way Regan had.
Regan declined an interview request and did not provide a statement in response to questions from BNN Bloomberg. But he’s not the only business owner who has caught the fury of the public for using rapid tests to hold personal gatherings.
In the small town of Newmarket in Ontario, Cassandra Gee and her partner were angered by the “many Instagram stories we both saw of local business owners flaunting that they were using rapid tests so they could have parties on New Year’s Eve.”
“We saw vape-shop owners, corner-store owners and at least five other business owners we know post on social media like this,” Gee said. “It was so sad and just genuinely made me angry because it’s a small community and we all kind of know each other. They all knew how hard we’d been trying to get rapid tests and that we had to cancel our plans. Yet, they just made us feel miserable while they partied.”
Local chambers of commerce, like the one in Newmarket and Winnipeg that provided businesses with rapid tests, have had programs to do so for weeks — well before the rise of Omicron.
Loren Remillard, president and chief executive officer of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said Manitoba began planning for this back in the early spring of 2021.
“The genesis of this was really to support a successful and safe reopening of the economy,” Remillard said. “We never really housed the kits ourselves or kept them in warehouses, but because chambers have a direct connection to the business community, we could act as a bridge between the province and local businesses.”
However, as COVID-19 infections surged in December, those programs started getting many more applicants than in prior weeks. Now, many chambers of commerce that had run such programs — including Winnipeg’s — have posted on their websites informing members that they’re out of stock.
An update on the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce website dated Jan. 3, for example, states: “The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce does not have any rapid testing kits. Additionally, the Grimsby & District Chamber of Commerce is out of stock. The province is continuing to urge the federal government to make more rapid tests available to provinces as quickly as possible. We are hoping to have more testing kits near the end of January.”
Remillard said criticism of businesses for getting rapid tests over individuals is “a bit misplaced.” He believes “a few lone wolves” who used the kits for their personal gatherings “should not be taken as the majority.”
“No program is ever perfect,” he said. “Of course, there’s lessons to be learned and we’re going to do better and learn more for the next iteration of the programs.”
BOOTLEGGERS UNITE, PRICE GOUGING CONTINUES
Personal use of chamber-provided rapid tests aside, there are other reasons why anger is being directed at certain business owners.
Some grocers and convenience-store owners are upselling rapid testing kits. And then there’s the bootleggers, who operate through chat-rooms on encrypted messaging services and other social media, and are intentionally price-gouging on rapid tests.
At Food Fare, an independent grocery-store chain that has a handful of locations in Winnipeg, owner and operator Munther Zeid is defensive about his business reselling rapid testing kits. Zeid’s store had listed packages of 25 rapid antigen tests on sale for $400 and had sold individual tests for $40 each before his supplies ran out.
For reference, Health Canada-authorized wholesaler The Canadian Shield, lists a five-pack of rapid antigen tests for $49.95 on their website, meaning roughly $10 per test.
Zeid told BNN Bloomberg he has no regrets and will likely resell testing kits once he gets more of them. Zeid claims he obtained those rapid tests through “third-party sources” and not through the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, and said he paid “just under the cost I put up for public customers.”
Zeid vehemently denies upcharging for rapid tests, but would not reveal what he paid for them.
“You have to understand, what we were charging for is the convenience of not having to wait in lines for hours to get those rapid tests and our labour of packaging the kits personally one by one,” Zeid said. “How am I the f---king bad guy here for that? People are angry at me as if I’m stealing their own testing kits and handing it back to them for hundreds of dollars.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, two different people who are selling rapid tests through the encrypted messaging app Signal — one in downtown Toronto and another in the Vancouver area — said they’re doing this to make some extra cash. Neither would reveal where they got their rapid tests nor answer how many they have left.
The bootlegger in Toronto is selling his kits of three rapid tests for $75 and the one in Vancouver is selling each device for $30.
Zeid said it’s only a matter of time before “business-savvy people will no longer be able to make their quick bucks on this kind of thing,” comparing the situation to toilet-paper hoarding.
“I’d give it a few more weeks and maybe a month or so,” he said. “Right now, everyone’s mad and everyone’s panicking, so they want to get these tests. But just like they got scared for toilet paper and stuff, they’re not going to stay that way for long. Everything will be back to normal soon.”
FEDS GETTING MORE TESTS, MANUFACTURERS RAMPING SUPPLY
Exactly how long it will take for things to be “normal” again is yet to be seen, however.
On Wednesday, at his first COVID-19 media briefing in the new year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that 140 million rapid antigen tests will be allocated on a per-capita basis across Canada, and that deliveries are “already on their way.”
Trudeau said he’s leaving the decision of how those rapid tests will be distributed up to the provincial and territorial governments.
“Our responsibility as a federal government is to make sure that there are enough rapid tests… Our job is to procure as many as we possibly can and get them to the provinces free of charge,” Trudeau said.
“We expect the provinces and territories to be there to distribute these rapid tests that we are procuring by the hundreds of millions to citizens, to help us get through this wave of Omicron as best as we possibly can."
On Thursday, the province of Ontario released a document showing that it requested an allocation of 68.6 million rapid tests for January, but added that the federal government has only committed to providing 54.3 million. Nearly 14 million tests from Ottawa are “still pending,” Ontario said.
And out of the 54.3 million tests the federal government has promised, Ontario said only “0.15 million” have been delivered. Nine million tests are scheduled for delivery and dates for the remaining 45 million tests have “yet to be scheduled.”
Meanwhile, manufacturers like Abbott Laboratories, one of Canada’s largest suppliers for rapid tests, said its facilities are being run “24 hours a day, seven days a week” just to meet demand.
“I can tell you that we’re seeing unprecedented demand for Panbio (COVID-19 AgRapid Test Device) and we’re sending them out as fast as we can make them,” said John Koval, director of public affairs at Abbott, in an email.
“In Canada, we’re delivering tens of millions of Panbio tests… We’ve always said testing must work together with vaccines — and that frequent testing is what’ll keep workplaces open, get people traveling, keep our kids in school, and make sure the economy doesn’t take unnecessary hits.”