EXPLAINED: How Germany will change Covid-19 strategy and ramp up testing

Germany is changing its Covid-19 testing strategy again, with a focus on increased rapid antigen tests and more availability of PCR tests. Here's what we know so far.

EXPLAINED: How Germany will change Covid-19 strategy and ramp up testing
A woman with a negative antigen test. Photo: DPA

 What's the latest?

On Tuesday Health Minister Jens Spahn announced plans for free rapid coronavirus tests to be available to everyone in Germany.

This is part of changes to the National Testing Strategy aimed at trying to help the country return to some kind of normality in the pandemic, and keep numbers down after it emerges from shutdown.

The current lockdown measures were last week extended to March 7th, but some schools are opening up this month.

READ ALSO: Germany plans free coronavirus rapid tests for all residents

What's happening with rapid Covid tests?

Germany is to offer free Covid-19 rapid antigen tests to everyone in the country from next month to tackle the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

“From March 1st, all citizens will be able to be tested free of charge by trained personnel” with the antigen tests, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a tweet.

The country is also planning a roll out of self-administered rapid tests after they are approved by national drug regulator BfArM. This is expected to happen in early March.

An increased availability of antigen tests, and tests that can be self-administered, are expected to play an important role as Germany starts to reopen schools and other facilities after months of closure.

Aren't rapid tests used already?

Yes. The government has already expanded the use of rapid tests. They are now used regularly in old people's homes, clinics and – only after outbreaks – also in schools – but for the time being only by trained staff.

“These tests can contribute to a safe everyday life, especially in schools and daycare centres,” said Spahn.

Last week during a press conference in Berlin, Spahn also said companies, such as retailers, could use self-administered tests in future to help with reopening public life safely.

“Rapid antigen tests can make an important contribution to finding a way out of the lockdown,” said Frankfurt virologist Sandra Ciesek at the press conference.

Ciesek said a study carried out in Hesse last autumn, which saw 10,000 self-administered tests being given out to teachers before and after the holidays, worked “very well”.

A rapid test being carried out in Berlin. Photo: DPA

The tests are usually done with a saliva swab. Two strips indicate that someone is positive – one means a negative detection.

Ciesek also emphasised that these tests, like all, do not offer 100 percent certainty but can act as an additional safety measure to help break chains of infection.

READ ALSO: Germany plans to allow sale of Covid-19 home test kits

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has been recommending that people get a PCR test for extra confirmation if they receive a positive antigen test result.

Can we currently pay to receive an antigen test?

Yes. Private testing centres have popped up across Germany offering rapid tests as well as PCR tests. Berlin's famous KitKat club even got a new lease of life after it turned into a rapid test centre.

People in German use them before and after travel, or before visiting family and friends at Christmas time, for example.

Test costs can vary, from around €50 to €100, but can be more depending on the provider.

It is unclear the impact that free rapid tests will have on these centres – and how testing will be documented in future.

Are other countries embracing rapid testing?

Yes. Neighbouring Austria, for example, has already moved to widespread rapid Covid-19 testing in a bid to keep numbers down after its lockdown

You need a negative test result for some services, such as to get a haircut or a tattoo. Tests are also free.
France also ramped up its testing strategy last year, offering easily accessible antigen and PCR tests, which are fully reimbursed to residents who are registered in the health system.

What's the difference between rapid and PCR tests?

Unlike PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that must be analysed in a lab, antigen testing can be done from saliva with a result given on the spot within 30 minutes.

That makes it easier and faster to test large numbers of people, though antigen tests are less reliable in detecting Covid-19 in people who are not showing symptoms.

Is there anything else changing about the testing strategy?

Yes. Health Minister Spahn said last Friday that PCR testing requirements are changing again in Germany.

From this week, everyone in Germany who experiences any Covid-19 symptoms (such as a fever or cough) should be able to get a PCR test covered by health insurance from their doctor.

Spahn said laboratories have the capacity to process more tests again.

Germany changed its test strategy in November, scaling back on the number of Covid tests offered compared to the first part of the pandemic, in order for laboratories to cope during the winter season, and to avoid overloading doctors' surgeries.

Authorities said this was because so many people have colds and flu in winter with similar symptoms to coronavirus.

They instead urged people with cold symptoms to isolate, and aimed to only offer testing to those with strong Covid-19 symptoms, such as a loss of taste or smell, or people who had been in contact with an infected person.

If someone suspects they have Covid-19 they can ask their doctor for a test, which is covered by health insurance. But it is the doctor's decision on whether a test is offered.

Member comments

  1. “From March 1st, all citizens will be able to be tested free of charge by trained personnel” with the antigen tests, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a tweet.

    So only applicable for citizens? Not including residents?
    Your other report/story on The Local stated ‘resident’…
    Somewhat confusing and misleading from your publication.

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.