Austria’s mass Covid screening splits opinion

By Jorge Dastis

Vienna, Dec 3 (efe-epa).- Heralded as a flagship policy by the Austrian government in its campaign against Covid-19, the mass screening effort using rapid antigen tests, which follows the example set by neighboring Slovakia, is a bid to reopen the country ahead of the Christmas holiday period.

It seems simple enough — take advantage of the speed and simplicity of this type of test to detect the largest possible number of asymptomatic carriers. But some experts and epidemiologists have warned that mass screening can bring more problems than benefits.

“It was a political decision,” said Herald Gartlehner, epidemiologist and professor at the Danube University Krems. “There was no epidemiological or scientific reason behind it.”

For him, this type of mass testing can generate a lot of errors in the data.

Austria’s health minister, Rudolf Anschober, recognized this but still stands by the “double test” system in the testing centers.

“There is a risk that there will be erroneous results, that’s why we do a second test if they come back positive,” he told Efe during a press conference at one of the centers.

From Friday until 13 December, the entire population is being asked to take a test in one of the many centers around the country. An appointment can be made online.

Although the process is voluntary, authorities in Vienna hope that at least 60% of the city’s population — around 1.8 million people — will take the test.

However, there are critics of the strategy within the panel of experts advising the health ministry, according to local newspaper Der Standard.

One of those critics was cited as saying the strategy only made sense if more than half of the country’s population was tested at least twice a week.

It is an opinion shared by Gartlehner.

“Logistically, they won’t be able to do it more than one time,” he told Efe.

“If you do it once, the best you can achieve is lower the numbers a bit, but two weeks later, you’re back where you started.”

Anschober said the government intended to do a second round of testing after Christmas, although offered no further detail.

Thomas Czypionka, head of the economics and health policy at the Vienna institute of advanced studies (IHS), said mass screening could help prevent the need for new lockdowns in the future.

He added that the benefit of mass testing just before a lockdown was that the number of infections would be “very high” while the costs of doing the tests would be minimal.

Czypionka said the government would be able to learn from its current mass testing plan, which would also allow families to meet up over Christmas with less anxiety about the risk of Covid-19.

The IHS estimates that partial lockdown in place in Austria is costing the economy somewhere between between 1-1.5 billion euros.

The cost of the tests acquired for the mass screening was around 67 million euros.

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