Covid-19: Rapid mass tests are not a “license for freedom” coronavirus

Austria presents itself as the “world champion” of Covid-19 tests, especially the rapid tests, which have always been defended as an essential part of the strategy to keep schools open and to operate services, which has now also been adopted outside the country.

Mass tests are viewed with enthusiasm by some experts, but with skepticism by others. The growing number of infections in Austria has renewed the debate – the average number of new cases per day is 3200 (moving average of seven days, data from the website Our World in Data), having increased from the minimum of the last few months.

That minimum was recorded on February 9, with an average of 1,300 new infections during the week the country began a progressive reopening. However, in some regions a new restriction has been announced to take advantage of the Easter holidays.

Proponents of mass tests, in particular Oswald Wanger, Vice Rector of the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna, argue that the tests, if carried out by a sufficient number of people, make it possible to detect positive cases that would go unnoticed by infected people but without symptoms. With these people found and isolated, “the remaining 99% no longer have to give up their freedom,” said the expert, quoted by the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.

Austria is one of the European countries that test the most: the moving average of seven days was 33.84 tests per thousand inhabitants on March 31st (data from Our World in Data), than Portugal, for example, an average of 2.52 and Germany had from 2.31. The country that has been tested the most, Slovakia (56.30) is currently one of the five countries in the European Union with the highest number of deaths per capita from covid-19.


Wanger is one of the advisors to the Austrian government for the management of the pandemic. The tests were part of the executive branch’s brand image, which encourages citizens to take tests, including tests that can be done by the state at home (up to five per person household trust). In schools, students are tested twice a week, and tests are also mandatory for employees and customers of hairdressers and massage centers, as well as government buildings.

The Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung made it clear in a test portrait in Austria that the aim is not to avoid a restriction, even if the Austrian government initially seemed to have proposed this.

However, the proposal seems to have remained and to have had an impact abroad, for example in Germany. The German university city of Tübingen offers anyone who presents a negative test for the virus that causes covid-19 a one-day “pass” into the city center and the option of access to shops for non-essential purchases, as well as activities at cultural events or meals on the outdoor terrace .

“Customers’ eyes light up when they enter, we finally have a bit of normality,” said Sandra Pauli, who has an interior decoration shop in the city center. “Everyone is so happy.”

Weimar has also opened shops and museums to anyone who gives a negative test, and Saarland plans to open cinemas, gyms and restaurant terraces as early as April 6, with a combination of quick tests and other precautionary measures. In the television program Anne Will, Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized test-based misunderstandings.

Arguments against

If in Austria one of the government advisors is one of the biggest proponents of mass rapid tests, another member of the same body has exactly the opposite. “So far, mass tests have not reduced the infection rates,” says Günter Weiss from the Clinic for Internal Medicine at the University of Innsbruck, simply speaking to the newspaper Der Standard.

The main weakness of rapid tests is that they only react and give a positive result when the viral load in the body exceeds a certain limit. Thus, they can give negative results to people who, hours later, or a day or two later, may already have enough viral load to infect others.

A school study looked at one week of rapid tests, and 1.4 million tests for teachers and students found 1,247 cases of infection (a quarter of them asymptomatic). However, when using PCR tests, the number of infections found was much higher, which in practice proves the theory that rapid tests find fewer positive cases than PCR.

The second weakness, argues Weiss, is the way in which politicians have linked tests with the ability to conduct activities safely: “In any event that, thanks to these tests, we are able to“ fish ”among asymptomatic people On the other hand, we end up with someone who becomes infected through careless behavior, ”he warns.

The newspaper also listened to investigator Piotr Tymoszuk, who conducted a study of mass tests in an area of ​​Italy, the conclusion of which is that the mass tests are not intended to interrupt transmission if done only once.

Used consistently may already play a role, but Timozuzu also points out the risk of reporting in connection with the use of the tests: “If antigen tests are only viewed as carte blanche for activity, I have doubts that they will serve to stop the pandemic “. In this case, the classic “boring” measures – consistent use of a mask, hand washing, avoiding contact and keeping your distance – continue to work better, he argues.

This time, however, Peter Klimek of the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna points out that those who take tests are usually the ones who are already more disciplined and they are the ones who repeat them. In order for the deflection to really take effect, more tests would have to be carried out.

Lack of security

Lukas Weseslindtner from the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna referred the false sense of security of a negative test to the public broadcaster ORF. It is not enough to test all of them to have a 30-person party at home, he illustrates. “The test helps me to have an approximate orientation, but nothing more.”

The evocation of the false security of the tests reminds his defense lawyer Wagner of the initial debate about the masks, the use of which was not only not recommended, but actively discouraged. “We will not make the great enemy of the good”: testing remains a tool, he emphasizes.

Weseslindtner says they are a tool, but more is needed. The measures applicable in Austria – tests, FFP2 masks, contact limit – are not intended to prevent outbreaks.

As in several European countries, including Portugal, the large presence of new varieties such as those identified in England or South Africa that are more contagious is a large part of the problem that vaccination alone is expected to solve.

Austria has meanwhile announced a strict restriction in Vienna and in the eastern regions of the country, which uses the Easter holidays and extends until at least April 11th. In addition to closing down services that involve close contact (hairdressers, massages), schools will switch to distance learning.

During the Easter season, only limited meetings between people who do not live together (for example, between a household and someone living alone) are allowed, and churches have been asked to hold Easter services outdoors.

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