Switzerland drops PCR tests for confirming positive rapid antigen tests

People queue at a Covid test centre in a street in Bern, Switzerland
People queue at a Covid test centre in a street in Bern. Testing laboratories are close to capacity with up to 90,000 PCR tests being analysed in Switzerland each day. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
If you test positive on a rapid-antigen test, you no longer need to take a PCR test to confirm the result, Switzerland's Federal Office of Public Health (BAG) told Swiss media on Friday.

Anyone who has a positive result on a rapid-antigen test now “is very highly likely to be genuinely infected,” a spokesperson for Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health (BAG) told Blick on Friday.

People previously needed to take a PCR test to confirm a positive result. Now, the testing centre just needs to report the positive result to the contact tracing department of the respective canton and to BAG. This will be counted as an official case, BAG told NZZ

False positives on rapid-antigen tests were very unlikely in the current epidemiological climate, the spokesperson explained, adding that the ministry was looking into further adjustments to its testing strategy.

PCR tests have always been considered the gold standard in Covid-19 testing as they have a higher degree of sensitivity than rapid antigen tests, so if the less-sensitive tests pick up a positive result, it is thought to be even more reliable.

READ ALSO: Switzerland: Do antigen tests detect Omicron?

Testing laboratories have been struggling to keep up with demand amid spiralling case numbers driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant. Dropping confirmatory PCR tests should free up laboratory resources and lengthy waiting times for results.

READ ALSO: Covid situation in Switzerland worsens amid unprecedented explosion of cases

Up to 90,000 PCR tests are analysed every day, one-third of which are positive.

This is very close to the country’s maximum capacity.

BAG recently warned that Swiss PCR testing capacity stood at 100,000 tests per day, but that Switzerland could only meet this for a short period due to a lack of staff.

Prioritisation for PCR tests
With testing laboratories struggling to keep on top of analyses, BAG has already advised Switzerland’s cantons of the order of priority for carrying out PCR tests in the event of bottlenecks, Blick reported.

Top priority should be given to those with Covid-19 symptoms, followed by preventative large-scale pooled-sample testing for schools and businesses, and in last place to anyone who needs a PCR test to travel or for a Covid-19 certificate.

Switzerland’s testing strategy falters precariously when it comes to mass testing. The basic idea was always to uncover hidden cases and thereby prevent further infections, but because of high case numbers in the current Omicron-driven wave and the delays in getting test results, it no longer makes sense.

The ministry declined to comment on this but repeated that “adaptations to the testing strategy are currently being examined”.

Some cantons have already seen the consequences of testing bottlenecks, in particular, Aargau, which has stopped preventative testing in schools and businesses.

It was taking such a long time to get the results from the tests that it was impossible to break chains of infection if you had to wait days to find out for sure who was infected, the health department explained.

But it’s not as bad in other cantons. Zurich, Basel-Stadt and Solothurn told broadcaster SRF that they were still able to conduct tests in schools.

The BAG maintained that there was “fundamentally sufficient laboratory capacity”, adding that it was important for testing capacity to be well coordinated across the country so that any local bottlenecks could be eased, Blick reported.

The cantons themselves are responsible for implementing tests.

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