Germany’s free Covid-19 testing system ‘opens up potential for fraud’

The rapid testing system across the country may be leading to widespread fraud, a German media investigation found.

Germany's free Covid-19 testing system 'opens up potential for fraud'
A test centre in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Government regulations mean that operators of coronavirus testing centres don’t have to provide proof of how many antigen tests they actually carry out on people in Germany to receive money from authorities, raising concerns over fraudulent activity. 

That’s according to a joint investigation by regional broadcasters NDR and WDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. 

Coronavirus testing centres, which have popped up across the country as they are often required for residents to access activities like outdoor dining, only have to inform the relevant doctors association of the number of people tested, without providing any proof.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about rapid Covid testing around Germany

That means the centre operators don’t have to provide details of the patients – or that they even bought antigen tests, the investigation found.

And test centres can go on to claim €18 per test from authorities.

Meanwhile, people who want to offer free tests usually need few prerequisites to do so, the report states.

For instance, an online course on swab collection is sufficient in many places, and then an application to open a test centre can be submitted to the health department. This is usually approved without difficulty.

According to the report, North Rhine-Westphalia alone had 1,862 test centers in mid-March, 5,776 in mid-April and 8,735 in mid-May.

Are some testing centres reporting too many tests to make money?

An overview of how much money has been spent on these tests is difficult to obtain currently.

Baden-Württemberg reported their costs at €62 million in April, and in Bavaria it was more than €120 million by mid-May. The money is distributed via the associations of statutory health insurance physicians, which in turn are reimbursed from tax revenues.

READ ALSO: Germans return to pools and beer gardens as some Covid curbs are lifted

The three media outlets reported on investigations in several North Rhine-Westphalian test centres. They compared the procedures there with an internal database of the state, in which the reports of the tests carried out are recorded. Journalists counted significantly fewer visitors in the test centres in each case than were subsequently reported to the state.

A spokesman for the Health Ministry told the three media outlets that while test centre operators do not have to submit data on the names of those tested or proof of purchase of the antigen tests to receive reimbursement, the do have to keep these records themselves until December 31st 2024.

That means a subsequent audit is also possible. The responsibility for this, he said, lies with the associations of statutory health insurance physicians.

Cases of test centers reporting more tests than were actually performed have “not come to the attention” of the Health Ministry to date. However, if there are indications of fraud, the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians – or Kassenärztlichen Vereinigungen (KV) – could examine the cases. 

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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.