PArched in front of an espresso bar at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz junction, Maximilian Fritzsch’s mobile coronavirus testing unit aims for a service speed similar to that of an on-the-go caffeine shot. Working from the back of an electric cargo bike, staff in lab coats take a quick swab from the nostrils of stressed travelers, who typically receive the result in their inboxes within 15 minutes.
“It’s a bit physically intrusive,” said 42-year-old office worker Luisa Larsen, impatiently reviewing the test result on her smartphone. “But again, it’s free and it feels like a responsible thing.”
Berlin’s 10 “coronabikes” are part of a massive private sector testing infrastructure that has sprung up in tents, cafes, nightclubs and shisha bars across Germany over the past three months, quickly at odds with Germany’s reputation for annoying bureaucracy.
For owner Fritzsch, whose Tokuri company used to import sake and soft drinks from Japan, the free daily Citizen tests o “citizen tests” have been a financial lifeline since bars and restaurants closed: the federal states reimburse service providers for the cost of each test.
A series of high-profile fraud cases and persistent questions about the accuracy of antigen testing (also known as lateral flow) have sparked criticism of Health Minister Jens Spahn’s plan to unleash a free market for all, something Die Welt newspaper called a “gold rush of testing.”
“It is an absurd and very atypical system for Germany,” said Matthias Orth, from the Institute of Laboratory Medicine at the Marienhospital in Stuttgart. Earlier this year, Germany’s disease control agency reported that a commonly used antigen test, which only detects Covid-19 cases on days when viral load is highest, had missed 61% of asymptomatic infections in the emergency room of a Katharinen hospital clinic from Stuttgart.
“Fully reliable testing can only be done in a controlled laboratory setting,” Orth said, arguing that a life-threatening disease like Covid-19 required pinpoint accuracy rather than general studies of the pandemic situation. The coronabike personnel conducting the tests have gone through an intensive two-day course on how to accurately take swabs and observe hygiene standards, but most of them have no prior medical or laboratory experience; many used to work in services or entertainment. industry.
However, while the most reliable PCR tests take approximately 24 hours to return a result and can only be analyzed by a limited number of certified laboratories, antigen tests have offered speed and volume.
A new study published by the University of Bonn on Thursday suggests that weekly rapid tests for 42% of Germany’s population in May 2021 played a more crucial role in the steep drop in infection rates than vaccines.
“From a doctor’s point of view, I understand the reservations,” said Hans-Martin von Gaudecker, professor of Applied Microeconomics at the University of Bonn and one of the study’s co-authors. “But from a public health perspective, it made a big difference.”
Since the Robert Koch Institute in Germany only records the number of certified PCR tests, the study has had to work with projections based on surveys of people using rapid antigen tests. Vaccines are estimated to account for only about 16% of the drop in infections during May, while mass testing accounted for 41% and seasonal climate change another 43%.
As of Friday morning, Germany has administered at least one dose of vaccine to 55% of its population, compared with 66% in the UK and a European Union average of 51%. 38% of the German population is fully vaccinated, compared to 49% in the UK and 34% across the EU on average.
“A large-scale testing infrastructure was installed relatively late, but has played an essential role in eliminating the third wave from Germany,” acknowledges Janosch Dahmen, a physician and health policy expert for the Green Party.
As more and more people are fully vaccinated, and fewer and fewer restaurants, bars, or hair salons require certified proof of a negative result to enter, testing centers are beginning to close with the same speed they appeared in German cities. In Berlin, which has the capacity to perform 4.7 million antigen tests a week, the Senate has reported that only 741,000 tests have been performed in the past seven days.
In early July, the German government reduced the financial incentives for people who run their own test center, reducing the compensation for each test from € 18 (£ 15.44) to € 11.
The situation is mirrored in France, where daily tests peaked at 6.6 per 1,000 people in April and have since dropped to around 3.6. Starting next week, non-residents in France will be charged € 49 for a PCR test and € 29 for a lateral flow test outside of what the government called a “spirit of reciprocity” with other member states. from the EU, most of which charge between € 60 and € 250.
France’s National Academy of Medicine recommended last week that unvaccinated people be asked to pay for “personal convenience” tests, arguing that free mass testing, with no limit on the number of tests a person can perform , they might encourage some people not to. get vaccinated.
However, health experts warn that it would be a fatal mistake for European governments to allow their makeshift testing infrastructures to wither away.
“If you look at the low vaccination rates in some parts of the world and the speed with which we have seen the development of new variants, it should be clear that this pandemic is far from over,” Green politician Dahmen told The Guardian.
“Especially if we cannot agree on consistent pandemic regulations across Europe, testing will continue to be a vital public health screening tool.”
To be effective against a variant-driven new wave, he said, some parts of Germany’s test system would need to be updated. Currently, the number of tests performed by small suppliers like coronabike is reported to the country’s disease control agency every day before midnight, but they are not entered into the Corona warning app that was originally intended to allow monitoring in real time of the pandemic. situation.
Doctors also suggest that combined PCR tests, rather than individual antigen tests, could be more effective in preventing outbreaks in daycare centers and schools. Some German nurseries already use so-called “lollipop tests”, with children and caregivers sucking on swabs for 30 seconds in the morning which are then analyzed overnight as a sample, reducing the capacity of laboratories. Only if the group test is positive, its members are examined individually.
The Berlin coronabikes could also face a more pragmatic hurdle as the season progresses. Antigen tests should be performed at room temperature. On hot summer days, Fritzsch passengers keep their test children tucked away in a drawer full of ice packs. But scientists warn that temperatures below freezing could further affect the reliability of the tests.
“I’ll have to wonder if I can really let my riders hang out in the ice and rain all day,” Fritzsch said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism