Austria Covid-19 ‘gargle’ tests in expansion drive

Throughout the day, vans loaded with bags full of Covid PCR test kits arrive at a Vienna laboratory, currently analysing an average of 370,000 tests per day.

A laboratory worker prepares samples for PCR tests
A laboratory worker prepares samples for PCR tests. Under the 'Everybody Gargles" system, Viennese can pick up a test from a drugstore, gargle at home and then return the kit for a result within 24 hours. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

With more than 144 million tests carried out since the beginning of the pandemic, the Alpine nation of nine million is a leader in Covid testing.

But with the latest Omicron wave sending cases spiralling, health experts and policymakers are asking if widespread testing — paid by taxpayers’ money
— is necessary and efficient.

The Lifebrain laboratory, which accounts for a major part of the country’s testing, has been expanding rapidly since it began work just over a year ago on the sprawling ground of a public hospital on Vienna’s outskirts.

Under the “Alles Gurgelt” (“Everybody Gargles”) system, Viennese can register online, go to a drugstore, pick up a test kit, gargle at home and then drop the kit back and wait for an email with results within 24 hours.

“It’s extremely low-threshold,” Lifebrain CEO Michael Havel tells AFP.

Better screening
Vienna came up with the system in late 2020 to offer better screening for the capital’s two million people.

Havel’s laboratory, which analyses the “Everybody Gargles” tests, now employs 1,800 people full time and can analyse up to 800,000 tests a day and run 24/7.

A third of its workforce were hired in the last two months alone. The city pays six euros ($6.80) per test to drugstores and others giving them out.

At the laboratory, workers from dozens of countries drag the bags full of test kits through the aisles of the laboratory set up in rooms in several old buildings on the hospital campus.

Scanning the bar codes on the test tubes one-by-one, they place the tubes into trays for analysis in designated high-tech machines. Computers eventually spit out results saying which batches contain positive Covid samples.

Currently mainly receiving tests from Vienna, Havel says he is prepared to expand capacities within Austria. Before the pandemic, Lifebrain, which Havel co-founded, was most active providing laboratory work in Italy.

“Everybody Gargles” tests are already part of the rigorous testing regime in schools — with students tested several times a week — and Vienna is now looking to expand the system into kindergartens too.

‘Gas and break at same time’
Ulrich Elling, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who helped develop the gargling method, said the “Alles Gurgelt” system was “extremely efficient”.

“So far this test strategy has made a lot of sense… (but) now with Omicron, everything is different. If you go for ‘herd immunity,’ then the question is to what extent it makes sense to step on the gas and brake at the same time,” he told AFP.

For his part, Havel is not concerned that the tests won’t be needed any time soon.

“In autumn I fear that the next wave will come our way… I think testing will only not be necessary anymore once the pandemic is over,” he says.


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Austria to phase out mass Covid testing on 31st March

Austria's mass Covid testing scheme is set to be phased out from March 31st, replaced by a targeted testing program.

Austria to phase out mass Covid testing on 31st March

Austria’s mass testing strategy was one of the most comprehensive in the world, having cost an estimated 2.6 billion euros since the start of the pandemic. 

The centrepiece of the testing scheme was free antigen tests for Austrian residents. 

The country will then move to a more “targeted test strategy”, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Grüne) said at a press conference on Thursday. 

The amendment to the infection law approved this Thursday allows the Ministry to determine for what purpose, with which test methods, and at what frequency any screening programs at the federal government’s expense could be carried out.

This would likely mean an end to Austria’s free and readily available tests. However, Mückstein said, tests will “of course” remain free for those who need them. The minister said that many experts had been in favour of a “paradigm shift” in the test strategy, taking into account the new omicron variant. 

Mückstein praised Vienna’s role in the test strategy, with easy PCR tests for anyone who wants to take them and several testing offers.

Vienna’s “special way”

At his press conference on 16 February, when he stated Vienna would keep many of the restrictions the federal government was lifting, the capital’s Mayor Michael Ludwig (SPÖ) had defended the current testing strategy. 

Later, he pressed on the issue several times, saying he sees the PCR tests as “important in several ways”, including taking people away from the chain of infection at an early stage.

Despite that, Ludwig also said the city would depend on federal funding to keep testing as it does. Today, Ludwig’s party, SPÖ, criticised the “dismantling of the test regime” during the National Council session. 

The party’s health secretary, Alois Stöger, alerted that the new rules would mean the government would start making decisions based on finances and cost instead of health and medical necessity.