At the moment, PCR tests are widely available to residents and tourists in Austria for free, regardless of whether you have symptoms and why you need the test — though availability does vary between the different regions. PCR tests are more accurate than antigen tests, but the samples must be sent to a lab for analysis which is not the case for the rapid antigen tests.
Vienna has the widest offer, where residents can collect free at-home PCR tests from pharmacies and supermarkets through the Alles Gurgelt (Everyone Gargles) programme. More PCR tests are carried out in Vienna, home to around a fifth of Austria’s total population, than in all the other states combined.
Major General Thomas Starlinger, one of the members of the national Covid crisis group GECKO, on Thursday evening said that the nature of the Omicron variant necessitated a change in testing strategy.
EXPLAINED: What are the Covid-19 rules in Austria now?
Speaking on TV news programme ZiB Nacht, he said: “In the coming weeks, in the regions which are reaching their limits with PCR testing, they will be forced to set priorities in areas like hospitals, schools and critical infrastructure.”
This means that in future, PCR tests will not be offered to everyone, Starlinger said.
The newer variant is highly transmissable, which has resulted in record case numbers and high pressure on testing services.
In some of the regions, testing is approaching full capacity, and this means regions will need to establish a priority order for testing. Starlinger explained this would mean ensuring PCR tests were available for the healthcare and care sectors as well as schools.
For people outside those key areas, the first alternative would be to take an antigen test, which should be valid for up to 12 hours only.
Starlinger said he would not call the changes a “strategy change”, but rather a “reaction” to the changing dynamic of the virus.
Gecko will meet again on Friday and any new recommendations will be passed on to the government.
As the map from Our World in Data below shows, Austria carries out more Covid tests per capita than almost any other country in Europe.
Several medical experts have been advocating for a change in test strategy.
Vienna’s City Councilor for Health Peter Hacker has said he wants to stick to the widespread testing strategy in Vienna, while simulation expert Niki Popper from the TU University used Vienna as a model example in an interview with the Kleine Zeitung, saying that “test strategy is more crucial than ever”.
But virologist Günter Weiss has criticised Austria’s “excessive and untargeted testing” in media interviews, arguing that the tests are expensive and can have negative effects such as giving people a false sense of security. He said that, for example, for someone who has received three vaccine doses and is wearing a mask at an event, it would be “It would be better to make sure that people wear the masks correctly, observe hand hygiene and distance rules” than to show a negative PCR test result.