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Top-secret records show New Brunswick, Alberta companies received millions in suspicious transfers – CBC.ca

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Off the coast of Mauritania in northwest Africa, thick black smoke billowed from a massive fishing trawler, trapping the crew on a vessel operated by a Canadian shell company.

It was July 19, 2019, and the Ivan Golubets, an imposing vessel comparable to the size of a soccer field, was fishing in the resource-rich waters of the western Sahara — considered a hot zone for illegal fishing by large trawlers — when tragedy struck.

Oleg Niculescu, a 39-year-old married father of two, ran to the engine room to investigate the source of the fire.

The burning vessel was evacuated: 59 crew members made it out, but Niculescu was never seen again.

“He was a cheerful man who loved life,” Anna Niculescu, Oleg’s wife, told a Ukrainian television station through tears.

“And in the end, everyone was saved, but he is gone.”

Anna Niculescu, Oleg Niculescu’s wife, told a Ukrainian TV station that her husband was a cheerful man who loved life. (NTN Ukraine)

The trawler burned for two days before sinking about 50 metres into the Atlantic Ocean while being towed by another vessel.

Niculescu’s remains are presumed to have sunk with the wreckage, along with evidence that might have explained what the trawler was doing for eight days before the fire, when, according to location data, its tracking system was off.

“They say he was burned to death,” Niculescu’s wife said. “But there is no specific information — with a signature or a seal — to confirm that.”

In the midst of their tragedy, Niculescu’s family has spent the past year fighting for compensation from the vessel’s operators. 

It’s a fight that’s taken them to an unexpected place: Canada, where the company that operated the Ivan Golubets is registered, despite having no actual business activity in this country.

Evial Business LP is registered in Calgary, and its website says it processes and sells fish from Mauritania. It has no footprint in Calgary, and Alberta corporate records leave no trace of the true beneficiaries of the company — only nominee directors in the Seychelles, a known tax haven.

The Ivan Golubets trawler was operated by a company called Evial Business LP, which is registered in Alberta. The company’s website says it processes and sells fish from Mauritania. (Evial Business LP)

“They try to hide under the umbrella of Canada’s good reputation,” said Borys Babin, an Odessa-based lawyer who has been helping Niculescu’s family navigate the courts.

The company appears in the FinCEN files, a 16-month-long investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), BuzzFeed News and partners. It’s based on top-secret bank reports filed to the U.S. Treasury Department’s intelligence unit, the Financial Crime Enforcement Network, other documents and dozens of interviews.

A CBC News/Radio-Canada investigation traced the complex corporate trail and found it extends all the way from Russia to Alberta and New Brunswick, two provinces with little corporate transparency.

Along the way, Canadian corporations have become caught in a story that involves allegations of insurance fraud and illegal fishing.

It comes amid a global reckoning around corporate transparency and a move to force corporations to reveal who really owns and controls them, called beneficial ownership.

But according to some experts, Canada and many of its provinces are moving too slowly.

“If you’re a white-collar criminal and wanting to hide money, Canada is the place to go,” said Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has studied the issue over the years.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says Canada is a destination for white-collar criminals looking to hide money, thanks to lax rules. (CBC)

“In fact, there’s an expression that’s used internationally that if you want to clean your dirty money, come to Canada. It’s called ‘snow washing.'”

Insurance policy took effect hours before vessel sunk

Babin believes not only that Niculescu’s death could have been prevented, but also that the sinking of the vessel amounted to fraud. He believes the ship’s operators wanted to sink it in order to collect an insurance payout.

A $15 million US insurance policy written by a Russian insurance company took effect mere hours before the Ivan Golubets caught fire, according to a policy reviewed by CBC News/Radio-Canada. It names Evial Business LP, the Calgary company, as one of its beneficiaries.

Ukrainian lawyer Boris Babin believes insurance fraud was involved in the sinking of the Ivan Golubets ship. (Oleksandr Popenko)

“They needed to have it go underwater and sink,” Niculescu’s wife told a Ukrainian television station.

“How could they not put out the fire? It’s inconceivable there wasn’t some sort of rescue team available to put it out, even if just to find the body. They simply let it all burn out.”

The 28-year-old ship and three other vessels were together valued at a total of $16 million US in 2016, according to a Centre for Transport Studies article. That means that the Ivan Golubets on its own would have been worth much less than the $15 million US payout.

It’s partly why Dyhia Belhabib also suspects insurance fraud.

She is the principal investigator of fisheries for Ecotrust Canada, a Canadian charity that promotes environmental sustainability, and has written a peer-reviewed study on illegal fishing in the waters off western Sahara.

“Immediately when you said that the insurance policy was effective the same day that the vessel has sunk, I immediately thought of fraud,” Belhabib said.

CBC News/Radio-Canada reached out to Evial Business LP with a list of questions, but did not receive a response.

The FinCEN Files

Niculescu’s family wrote to Evial Business LP a year ago to ask for compensation, but Babin said they never received a reply.

Babin said he Googled Evial Business LP and was surprised to find it is a small company with no presence in Canada, given the money that would be required to operate the big trawler.

A reporter who visited Evial Business LP’s address at a Calgary business plaza found no trace of the company or of any fish production. Instead, they found a corporate services company that provides mail forwarding.

But the company certainly has money.

Documents shared with the ICIJ and other news organizations by BuzzFeed News show that the company was flagged by banks for receiving more than $4 million US through wire transfers that banks deemed suspicious. The suspicious activity reports are not proof of wrongdoing.

The FinCEN Files is a 16-month-long investigation by the ICIJ, BuzzFeed News and partners. It’s based on top-secret bank reports filed to the U.S. Treasury Department’s intelligence unit, the Financial Crime Enforcement Network, other documents and dozens of interviews. (ICIJ/BuzzFeed News)

They offer a window into how easy it is to manipulate Canada’s corporate registration system.

A New Brunswick connection

On its website, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. promises “to make your every fish come true!”

The company advertises products like smoked and dried fish as well as “delicious caviar, shrimps, crab sticks and sea cabbage.”

But despite the initials in its corporate name, there’s no evidence that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. operates in New Brunswick, a province known for its fisheries.

Despite the N.B. in its company name and the address on its website, the home page of which is pictured here, there is no evidence that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. operates in New Brunswick’s well-known fisheries industry. (Oceanic Fisheries N.B.)

CBC News/Radio-Canada has found that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. is linked to Evial Business LP, according to website records and confidential banking records that tie the two companies together.

In 2016, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. and Evial Business LP both received transfers of large sums of money from senders that used the same Swiss bank, according to records in the FinCEN Files. The transfers typically happened within a few days of each other or sometimes even on the same day. For both Evial Business LP and Oceanic Fisheries N.B., the money ultimately landed at the same branch of a bank in Moscow.

Again in 2017, both companies had a similar banking footprint. Both received big transfers — more than $640,000 US to Evial Business LP and $1 million US to Oceanic Fisheries N.B. — from the same sender, one day apart. In both cases, the money ended up at a Russian bank branch.

Online records show both companies created similar-looking websites using the same registrant within weeks of each other. Both were updated on the exact same day in 2018.

Based in Saint John but banking on another continent

Despite being based in Canada, neither Oceanic Fisheries N.B. nor Evial Business LP used the Canadian banking system — a red flag for banks, according to records in the FinCEN files.

In total, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. was flagged for more than $31 million US in suspicious transfers.

WATCH: New Brunswick’s lax corporate registration rules make it easy to conceal company identity:

Top-secret bank records show how easy it is to manipulate corporate systems in provinces like New Brunswick. 4:41

In September 2013, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. received two wire transfers, totalling $2.79 million US, at a bank account in Latvia. 

“Shell entities can be created and used by individuals and businesses for legitimate purposes,” the suspicious-activity report says.

“However, they are a concern for money laundering and financial crimes given that they are easy to form, inexpensive to operate and are structured in a manner designed to conceal the transactional details of the entities.”

Records from the FinCEN files indicate that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. is tied to a Latvian company called Baltreids, which does commercial fishing in Mauritania and Morocco. 

When the Ivan Golubets caught fire, vessels operated by Baltreids and Oceanic Fisheries N.B. came to the rescue. 

The Latvian owner of Baltreids denied having links to Evial Business LP or Oceanic Fisheries N.B. or to engaging in any illegal fishing or money laundering, in response to questions posed by CBC News/Radio-Canada and TV3 in Latvia.

Dyhia Belhabib, principal investigator of fisheries with Ecotrust Canada, believes the Ivan Golubets was fishing illegally before it caught fire and sank. (Paul Émile d’Entremont/Radio-Canada)

However, Belhabib, the fisheries investigator with Ecotrust, said she is “100 per cent confident” that the Ivan Golubets had “done something shady, at least fishing where they’re not supposed to fish,” before it sank. That’s based on her knowledge of illegal fishing in the region and location tracking data she reviewed for CBC News/Radio-Canada.

The data shows the vessel’s tracking system was off for eight days before the fire, something Belhabib found suspicious because ships are supposed to immediately go to the nearest port to fix any technical problems when a tracker stops working.

Searching for a shell

With no online trace of any real connection to New Brunswick, CBC News/Radio-Canada went on a hunt to find Oceanic Fisheries N.B.

On its website, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. claims it was established in the early 2000s and has spent more than 15 years “being engaged in wholesale and retail sales of freshly frozen fish and seafood products as well as self-made fish dishes.” 

But New Brunswick corporate records show the company wasn’t established in the province until 2011. Its current director lists an address in South Africa, and there aren’t any Canadian employees or phone numbers listed on its website.

In August, a reporter visited the Saint John address that was listed on the company’s website at the time. It matches a UPS store on Rothesay Avenue.

The owner of the UPS Store, who bought the franchise within the last year, said she had never heard of Oceanic Fisheries N.B. Nor had the owner of the building.

A day later, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. removed the Rothesay Avenue address from its website.

Last year, Oceanic Fisheries N.B. changed its address on corporate records to 60 Charlotte St., in Saint John’s uptown. 

Oceanic Fisheries N.B. lists its address on corporate records and on its website as 60 Charlotte St. in Saint John, which is also home to a seniors’ apartment complex. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

But when a reporter visited that address, expecting to find Oceanic Fisheries N.B., they hit another dead end.

Instead of a fish production operation, there was a corporate services company, Document Searching Services, which collects mail for Oceanic Fisheries N.B. The building is also home to a large seniors’ apartment complex called the Admiral Beatty.

Three residents of the complex who spoke to CBC News were surprised to hear that a fish production company would claim to operate out of the same building where they live.

“I’d be shocked,” one woman said.

Oceanic Fisheries N.B. didn’t respond to a list of questions from CBC News/Radio-Canada.

A call from an agent

Soon after the visit to Oceanic Fisheries N.B.’s address, a reporter got a call from a man who identified himself as Eugene Pödesberger. He said he was an assistant manager with a company called Fulcrum Office.

CBC News/Radio-Canada couldn’t verify the existence of that company, but Pödesberger described it as an “agent service” that represents Oceanic Fisheries N.B.

He said he doesn’t know much about Oceanic Fisheries N.B. and what they do.

But Pödesberger, who was calling from a Toronto number, knew a lot about why New Brunswick is an appealing locale for international companies that otherwise have no footprint in the province: it offers cheap office space compared to major hubs like Toronto.

New Brunswick Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau would like to see the province adopt more transparent corporate registration rules. (Karissa Donkin/CBC )

The province also doesn’t require directors of corporations to be resident Canadians — as some other provinces do — nor does it require corporations to disclose who holds beneficial ownership.

Pödesberger said demand to set up businesses in New Brunswick is “high.” But It’s impossible to say exactly how high it is, since New Brunswick has a closed corporate registry.

Closing loopholes

It’s a problem that New Brunswick’s government seems to know about.

A 2015 provincial government report discussed whether the province should require companies to have at least one director who’s a resident Canadian and whether it “would lessen the potential misuse of a [New Brunswick] corporation being used as part of an international securities scam or fraud.” 

But if New Brunswick changed its rules, businesses could just move to another province with lax rules, the report concluded.

Across the board, Canada has “really lax” reporting standards for corporations, “which is why international crime loves us,” Angus said.

But Angus said New Brunswick has “lower than the lowest of standards.”

“This is a place where if you want to evade, say, sanctions with Russia, if you want to hide your dirty money, come to New Brunswick and set up shop,” Angus said.

New Brunswick does not require directors of corporations to be resident Canadian. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

When asked about the issue earlier this month, Premier Blaine Higgs indicated a willingness to explore the idea of beneficial ownership.

“If we have illegal activity or revenue being hidden or taxes being avoided that are certainly illegal in that sense, then I would want to close those loopholes and I would want to adopt the best practices,” Higgs said.

New Brunswick Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau wants New Brunswick to develop a more transparent corporate registry. He believes the province has a moral obligation to change things.

When he learned that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. was operating with New Brunswick’s initials in its name and marketing itself as a New Brunswick company, he was frustrated.

“That reputation, using New Brunswick in any way, shape or form that’s misleading, it shouldn’t be tolerated at all,” Arseneau said.

“This is our reputation. This is our hard work.” 

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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Wednesday – CBC.ca

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The latest:

Manitoba’s health system still has capacity and is not yet at its breaking point, the health minister said Tuesday as the number of active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increased. 

The province reported 184 new cases — a new daily record — and three new deaths on Tuesday. Hospitalizations increased to 83, while ICU numbers stayed steady at 15.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the province is bringing in extra contact tracers through an agreement with the Red Cross and is planning for all scenarios, including the possibility of moving less severe patients and cancelling elective surgeries.

“If the numbers continue to go in the wrong direction on COVID-19, then we have to think about how we would curtail those in order to keep people safe and be able to concentrate our efforts elsewhere,” he said.

The question of how health systems will cope with a second wave is not just an issue in Manitoba. The Canadian Medical Association released a study this week looking at the impact of the first wave of COVID-19 on six procedures, including CT and MRI scans, knee and hip replacements and cataract surgery. 

Dr. Ann Collins, president of the national association of physicians, said Canadians could “very well see a backlog on a backlog if we do not start addressing it, given what we are very possibly looking at with a second wave.”


What’s happening in Canada

WATCH | Why 2 provinces haven’t adopted COVID Alert app:

Only five million Canadians have downloaded the COVID Alert app in three months, partly because it’s not active in Alberta and British Columbia. Officials in B.C. want the app to give more information about COVID-19 exposure while Alberta has been delayed by its own app. 1:57

As of 7 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada had 222,887 confirmed or presumptive coronavirus cases. Provinces and territories listed 186,464 of those as recovered or resolved. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 10,001.

British Columbia announced 217 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the number of active cases in the province up to 2,322. There were 84 people hospitalized, with 27 in the ICU.

Alberta reported 422 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the number of active cases in the province to 4,738. Hospitalizations ticked up to to 123, with ICU numbers steady at 16.

In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe said Tuesday that targeted measures focused on COVID-19 in bars and nightclubs could come this week after dozens of cases were linked to several bars and clubs. The province reported 58 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the number of active cases to 652. Health officials reported 24 hospitalizations, with six in ICU.

Ontario’s premier said he’s accepted the apology of a Niagara-area MPP who has faced criticism after being captured in a close group photo at an indoor event in which nobody wore masks. “Everyone makes mistakes. He apologized. He’s not going to do it again,” Doug Ford said of Sam Oosterhoff.

Ontario reported 827 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and four new deaths due to the virus. In total, 312 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 75 in intensive care.

In Quebec, Premier François Legault, who recently extended COVID-19 restrictions in hard-hit regions of the province, defended his government Tuesday against an opposition charge that mixed messaging around public health restrictions is sowing unrest in the province.

Quebec reported 963 new COVID-19 cases, and 19 new deaths — with four of the deaths reported in the past 24 hours, 14 dating back to last week and one from an unknown date. The number of patients in hospital declined by 16 to 527 while the number of intensive-care patients dropped by two to 91.

WATCH | COVID-19 antibodies may disappear quickly, new study finds:

A new study out of the U.K. has found COVID-19 antibodies can disappear quickly from people who’ve had the virus, which experts say makes herd immunity unlikely without a vaccine. 3:33

The Atlantic provinces saw some increases in COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, with New Brunswick reporting three new cases in the Campbellton region, bringing the total number of active cases in the province to 55. Nova Scotia reported one new case, saying the individual had travelled outside Atlantic Canada and was self-isolating.

There were no new cases reported in Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the North, there were no new confirmed cases in Yukon or Nunavut. In the Northwest Territories officials reported a presumptive positive case in Inuvik, but said in a statement that public health “has determined there is no risk to the public as the individual has been self-isolating appropriately since returning from travel.”


What’s happening around the world 

WATCH | Researchers examine whether vitamin D could help treat COVID-19:

Several clinical trials are trying to determine whether vitamin D could be effective in helping to treat or prevent COVID-19, while a new study shows many patients in a Spanish hospital had a vitamin D deficiency. 1:58

A database maintained by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University tracking COVID-19 cases worldwide stood at more than 44 million cases worldwide as of Wednesday morning, with more than 29.8 million considered resolved. The number of deaths reported around the world stood at more than 1.1 million.

In the Americas, nearly half a million people have contracted COVID-19 in the United States over the last seven days, according to a Reuters tally, as new cases and hospitalizations set records in the Midwest.

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said on Tuesday she had tested positive for COVID-19 but was feeling well and had not developed symptoms of the disease.

A doctor calls a patient for a COVID-19 triage consultation at a wholesale market in Mexico City on Tuesday. Mexico has reported more than 900,000 cases and nearly 90,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

The situation in Europe, where coronavirus infections are surging, is “serious and alarming” and the bloc must be more efficient with testing, contact tracing, vaccine and quarantine policies, the EU Council president said.

“We need more efficiency in intercepting [the virus] before citizens infect each other. We need strong planning. Otherwise we will have systematic lockdowns in coming months,” Charles Michel told Italian daily La Stampa in an interview published on Wednesday.

Italy, which pledged more than €5 billion (roughly $7.7 billion Cdn) in new support measures for businesses hit by the latest restrictions, has seen repeated clashes between police and protesters in cities from Naples to Turin as well as bitter criticism from restaurant owners and business groups.

WATCH | Protesters against COVID-19 restrictions clash with police in Rome:

Police move in on supporters of a far-right party protesting anti-COVID-19 measures in Rome, one of several demonstrations across Italy over the past week. 3:52

In the Asia-Pacific region, India’s tally of confirmed coronavirus cases moved closer to eight million, with 43,893 new cases reported in the latest 24-hour period.

The total reported Wednesday includes the highest single-day number of cases for New Delhi, the Indian capital — 4,853. The Health Ministry also reported 508 fatalities from COVID-19 across India in the past 24 hours, raising the total to 120,010.

Authorities in Sri Lanka have closed several museums as a new wave of coronavirus cases is detected in different parts of the country.

In the Middle East, the Iranian government said people are being too lax in complying with restrictions, as the hardest-hit Middle Eastern country faced new daily records of infections and deaths.

South Africa remained the hardest-hit country in Africa, with nearly 718,000 reported cases and more than 19,000 deaths.

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Is more testing behind the record numbers of COVID-19 cases in Canada? Your testing questions answered – CBC.ca

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We’re answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca, and we’ll answer as many as we can. We publish a selection of answers online and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network. So far, we’ve received more than 55,000 emails from all corners of the country.

COVID-19 testing is a crucial part of tracking and managing the pandemic. It has become a part of daily life that’s often necessary for returning to work or school or for keeping friends and family safe. 

But it also generates a lot of confusing news and advice from case counts to wait times to ever-changing instructions about who needs to get tested, when, how and why.

It’s no wonder CBC readers have lots of questions. We checked with experts to get some of the answers.

Is the present spike in COVID-19 cases in Canada related to the increase in testing?

Many provinces have been breaking daily new case records for COVID-19, including British Columbia, Alberta, SaskatchewanManitobaOntario, and Quebec. But these provinces are all running more tests now than they were at the previous peak in the spring when a shortage of tests meant even people with very typical COVID-19 symptoms couldn’t get tested. So, are the increased case counts simply due to more testing? For the most part, no. But the amount of testing does make a difference.

For Ontario, the new records are partly due to the increase in testing, said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., in an interview with CBC News Network.

Ontario completed over 48,000 tests on Oct. 7 (two days before setting a record of 949 cases in one day) — about quadruple the 12,000 it ran on April 24 when the province hit a spring peak of 640 cases. 

At that time, Chakrabarti estimates about three-quarters of cases were being missed, and there were likely closer to 2,500 cases a day in late April.

However, the real number of cases in Canada is definitely higher than it’s been since the spring peak. 

All things being equal, if you test more of the population, you will end up testing more people with COVID-19, which will cause the case counts to go up, but you will typically test even more people without COVID-19, causing the percentage of positive tests to decrease, said Cynthia Carr, founder of the Winnipeg-based epidemiology consulting firm EPI Research Inc.

But in fact, the percentage of tests that come back positive is increasing in many places, including Manitoba. In that province, the real number of cases is “definitely an increase relative to the spring.” 

And in Ottawa, SARS-CoV-2 virus levels in waste water in recent weeks are the highest they’ve been since testing began in June. That’s a measure of COVID-19 prevalence independent of the amount of testing at testing centres, said Raywat Deonandan, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa. 

The good news? Coronavirus levels in waste water seem to be going down since the province imposed stricter restrictions on social gatherings in the city before Thanksgiving.

WATCH | How sewage can be used to track COVID-19:

Wastewater samples from sewage are being used to determine the existence of COVID-19 in communities and could give advance warning of where a second wave is taking shape. 2:03

If we can test feces in waste water for coronavirus, why are we still doing invasive nasal swabs?

Having your nose swabbed can feel really uncomfortable, but Dr. Matthew Cheng, an assistant professor of medicine at McGill University, said there are practical reasons for it:

  • Public health doctors are more interested in knowing if the virus is in the respiratory tract, which the nose is part of, as it’s mainly spread via the respiratory tract.

  • Lab protocols are optimized to process lots of respiratory samples and having other kinds of samples could slow down analysis.

He said that there’s lots of work underway to be able to quickly analyze respiratory tract samples that are easy for people to collect themselves, such as “swish and gargle” saliva tests. Lastly, many people may not find collecting a stool sample easier than getting a swab in the nose.

WATCH | A closer look at saliva-based tests:

Instead of waiting in a long line for a COVID-19 test that involves getting a swab stuck up the nose and sometimes waiting days for results, scientists are developing saliva-based tests and produce results in minutes. Is the future of testing more comfortable and done at home? 5:58

How long are test samples good for?

With backlogs in testing in Ontario this fall, at least one local health director has complained about tests spoiling and having to be redone after they weren’t processed within 72 hours. Dr. Robert Cushman, acting medical director of Renfrew County and District Health Unit in Ontario, reported that the testing lab told him that about 10 tests had to be redone due to delays in processing.

So how long do they last?

It depends on how the swab is stored after collection, said Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, but generally speaking, it should last weeks.

Benoît Hébert, a Quebec-based biotechnology consultant, said most biological samples including nasopharyngeal swabs can be stored at regular fridge temperatures for up to 72 hours and should be deep frozen if there is any delay in testing or shipping.

According to Public Health Ontario, tests have about a 95 per cent accuracy rate as long as the test is processed within seven days of collection, and the sample is taken using a nasopharyngeal swab.

As of mid-October, more than half the tests in Ontario were processed within two days, the Health Ministry told CBC News in an email. It said that accredited labs conducting testing must have equipment in place to keep specimens at a stable temperature before testing, and it recommends freezing samples to preserve them.

“In the event a laboratory would report a specimen as expired, they would contact the testing site to ensure that re-collection occurs,” the ministry said.

WATCH | A closer look at rapid COVID-19 testing:

Doctors answer viewer questions about COVID-19 testing in Canada, including how effective it is and who should be tested. 4:58

I got COVID-19 and isolated for the required time. But I’m still testing positive. What does that mean? 

“Many people have these lingering positive tests,” acknowledged Chakrabarti, and that can happen weeks or months after they recover. But at that point, he said, “they’re not actually contagious.”

Dr. Zain Chagla, medical director of infection control at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, explained that’s because COVID-19 tests detect genetic material from the virus, which can be shed from your body even when all the viruses are dead.

So how long is a COVID-19 patient contagious?

Chagla said that researchers trying to culture live virus from patients have found there are minimal amounts in most people 10 days after they experience their first symptoms and after 20 days in critically ill patients. That suggests they’re not contagious after those periods.

“There’s also been no case reports of people being infected by others who are 10+ days into their illness,” Chagla added in an email.

That’s why 10 days (instead of 14 days) is now the standard time recommended to self-isolate after your symptoms start in places such as Ontario and B.C. 

It also means long-haulers, people who are still experiencing symptoms months after they got infected, are not contagious.

WATCH | Doctors take questions and give answers about COVID-19 testing:

There is a growing push to have Canada focus on COVID-19 tests that detect who is contagious rather than who is positive for the virus. These tests are available elsewhere in the world, cheaper and can be done at home, but they aren’t approved in Canada. 6:05

I’ve recovered from COVID-19, but my boss says I need to test negative before I can return to work. Can they ask me for one?

Given that people can test positive for weeks or months after recovery and aren’t contagious, a request like this may be frustrating.

But the answer is yes.

Even if you’ve completed isolation and public health has cleared you, employment lawyer Howard Levitt said it’s within your employer’s rights to require a negative test — and they’re not obliged to pay you if you’re unable to work. 

“Safety trumps privacy. That’s the bottom line,” said Levitt, noting that employers could ask for a negative test result every two weeks, if they wanted to, needing no other reason than ensuring a safe workplace. 

So what can workers do?

You could try talking with your boss or getting a doctor’s note, said Maggie Campbell, a partner at Vancouver law firm Roper Greyell. 

Other than that, Levitt says there isn’t much you can do. You can offer to work from home, if possible, or you could take your employer to court, but he cautioned that courts may not be in workers’ favour in the current climate. 

“Employees should understand that anything an employer is doing to protect other employees of theirs will be seen very sympathetically by the courts.”

However, companies should be up-to-date with the latest public health guidelines, he said. 

If your employer sends you home without pay while awaiting a negative test result, you could apply for Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, providing you are eligible.

WATCH | Labour lawyer answers questions about work during pandemic:

Employment lawyer Howard Levitt answers your question about work during the COVID-19 pandemic, including when it’s in your best interest to refuse to go back to work. 14:13

I have symptoms but tested negative. Do I still have to self-isolate?

It’s always best to check with your health-care provider or local public health unit for advice specific to your personal situation. But symptomatic individuals may be advised to continue isolating for the remainder of the isolation period, even if they get a negative result. 

That’s because a negative result isn’t a guarantee that you don’t have the virus.

According to Dr. Kelly MacDonald, head of the infectious disease program at the University of Manitoba, the nasal swab test is accurate 99 per cent of the time in a laboratory setting, but in a clinical setting errors can happen when the sample is taken. For example, the swabbing may not be done properly. 

A negative test could also mean that you were tested too early before viral levels are high enough to be reliably measured

Ultimately, context is important, and your doctor or local health unit would form their advice on a number of factors, including whether there was exposure to a known case, the kind of symptoms you have, how long you’ve had them and whether you’re a student, or you work with vulnerable individuals, for example.

And even if you don’t have COVID-19, you could still be contagious with something else — perhaps the flu — in which case, the same public health advice to stay home when sick would still apply.

On the other hand, if you get a positive test, you almost certainly have COVID-19 — the false positive rate is very low — less than one per cent of tests overall, estimates Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.

WATCH | Why people with COVID-19 symptoms should be reassessed if they test negative:

Infectious disease physician Dr. Isaac Bogoch discusses new research on the rate of ‘false negatives’ in coronavirus tests and why people with persistent COVID-19 symptoms should be reassessed even if they test negative.  2:24

If you’re a contact of someone who tested positive, why are you supposed to get tested within 2 weeks of exposure? Wouldn’t the virus still be developing?

While it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to develop, Charkrabarti said that most people start to develop symptoms within seven days.

“And you can actually test positive a couple of days before that,” he said.

So ideally, you should wait about three to four days after exposure before getting tested, he recommends. 

However, any result could still be a false negative, so if you were exposed, you should remain in quarantine for 14 days even if you test negative.

Are tests at pharmacies as accurate as those at provincial testing centres?

Two provinces have been offering tests in pharmacies to people without COVID-19 symptoms: Alberta and Ontario.

In general, people with no symptoms are more likely to get a false negative than those with symptoms, but it’s not known by how much.

In Alberta, the tests are identical to those offered at provincial testing sites and analyzed at the same labs, the provincial Health Ministry says. That means they should have similar accuracy to tests of asymptomatic people at testing centres. However, Alberta announced on Oct. 20 that it would stop testing asymptomatic people with no known exposure to COVID-19 — the only people who could get tested in pharmacies.

In Ontario, there are some differences between pharmacy tests and those offered at provincial testing centres. Pharmacy tests use shorter nasal swabs instead of the long nasopharyngeal swabs, and they’re sent to the California lab of Quest Diagnostics instead of in-province labs, says the provincial Health Ministry.

Chagla says the sensitivity may be slightly lower with the shorter swabs, but this shouldn’t be a big risk, as the probability of asymptomatic people having COVID-19 is lower than people with symptoms, especially if they haven’t been exposed.

WATCH | How pharmacy testing works in Ontario:

CBC’s Tahmina Aziz speaks with Thibert and outlines the criteria Windsorites must meet to be tested in a pharmacy. 1:45

I think I had COVID-19, but I’m better now. Can I be tested to confirm?

The nose swabs at testing centres can only detect current or very recent infections, not whether you’ve been previously infected. To find that out, you need an antibody test. Such tests are available 14 days after active infection, with a doctor’s prescription, in some provinces. Dynacare offers the service in Ontario and Quebec. Ichor Blood Services offers it in some communities in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. The fee is typically $70 to $80.

However, studies have shown that even among those infected, antibodies fade with time, and it happens far more quickly in those who never showed symptoms.

WATCH | A closer look at the 1st antibody test Health Canada approved in May:

Health Canada says it has authorized the first COVID-19 serological test for use in the country to detect antibodies specific to the virus.   3:09

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Happy ending for young Montreal couple who overcame immigration obstacles – CBC.ca

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When Bayan Assi, 29, learned that his wife would finally be allowed to come to Canada, the relief was overwhelming.

“It was an exhilarating moment. It was like so much pressure was removed off your chest, [and] put on the side,” Assi said.

The couple married in January. And since then, Assi, a Canadian citizen, has been trying to bring Rawand Shamseddine, 30, to Canada.

His efforts intensified after a horrific explosion in August levelled parts of Beirut, where Shamseddine was living. At least 200 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured in the blast.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) established a program designed to reunite families affected by the explosion. Shamseddine applied, but was told she did not qualify and was turned down.

Bayan Assi’s wife Rawand Shamseddine will soon be on her way to Canada. 1:09

After the couple’s plea to IRCC last week, Shamseddine was finally issued a temporary residence permit (TRP) to be able to come to Canada.

“It was the first time I saw her truly smile, after all this disaster and catastrophe that she’s been going through,” said Assi. “It was like a glimpse of hope on her face.”

Assi’s relief is tempered with concern for other couples who are also trying to navigate the Canadian immigration process.

“I think there needs to be a lot more attention to the details of every application,” he said.

Assi added that he believes his wife’s file may not have been properly reviewed, and because of that she was initially denied.

Bayan Assi 29, a computer engineer and his wife Rawand Shamseddine 30, who has a masters degree in music education, together in Lebanon. (Submitted by Bayan Assi)

“Her file, which was made for people affected by the explosion in Beirut, was treated as a normal tourist visa,” he explained.

Should have been eligible from the start

Joseph Daoura, a lawyer who deals with immigrations cases, praised Canadian embassy staff and IRCC for their efforts.

“They did a great job,” said Daoura. “They reviewed their decision which is now in line with the guidance and instructions given [after] the Beirut explosion.”

But he explains that Shamseddine should have been eligible from the start — under Canada’s federal reunification program — since she is married to a Canadian citizen and was living in the area affected by the Beirut explosion.

Daoura says another case he worked on with embassy staff also ended in a happy ending.  He said he’s glad officials there are taking a “humanitarian approach” to reuniting families.

The TRP issued to Shamseddine allows her to live in Canada for a period of time, while she waits for approval of her spousal sponsorship visa.

Assi says he’s looking forward to Shamseddine’s arrival and the start of their lives together.

“It’s really starting from point zero, and building [a life] with her, [which] is going to be something beautiful and something I look forward to.”

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