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COVID-19 TESTS

Switzerland drops PCR tests for confirming positive rapid antigen tests

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.

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

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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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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