Austria Covid-19 ‘gargle’ tests in expansion drive

Throughout the day, vans loaded with bags full of Covid PCR test kits arrive at a Vienna laboratory, currently analysing an average of 370,000 tests per day.

A laboratory worker prepares samples for PCR tests
A laboratory worker prepares samples for PCR tests. Under the 'Everybody Gargles" system, Viennese can pick up a test from a drugstore, gargle at home and then return the kit for a result within 24 hours. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

With more than 144 million tests carried out since the beginning of the pandemic, the Alpine nation of nine million is a leader in Covid testing.

But with the latest Omicron wave sending cases spiralling, health experts and policymakers are asking if widespread testing — paid by taxpayers’ money
— is necessary and efficient.

The Lifebrain laboratory, which accounts for a major part of the country’s testing, has been expanding rapidly since it began work just over a year ago on the sprawling ground of a public hospital on Vienna’s outskirts.

Under the “Alles Gurgelt” (“Everybody Gargles”) system, Viennese can register online, go to a drugstore, pick up a test kit, gargle at home and then drop the kit back and wait for an email with results within 24 hours.

“It’s extremely low-threshold,” Lifebrain CEO Michael Havel tells AFP.

Better screening
Vienna came up with the system in late 2020 to offer better screening for the capital’s two million people.

Havel’s laboratory, which analyses the “Everybody Gargles” tests, now employs 1,800 people full time and can analyse up to 800,000 tests a day and run 24/7.

A third of its workforce were hired in the last two months alone. The city pays six euros ($6.80) per test to drugstores and others giving them out.

At the laboratory, workers from dozens of countries drag the bags full of test kits through the aisles of the laboratory set up in rooms in several old buildings on the hospital campus.

Scanning the bar codes on the test tubes one-by-one, they place the tubes into trays for analysis in designated high-tech machines. Computers eventually spit out results saying which batches contain positive Covid samples.

Currently mainly receiving tests from Vienna, Havel says he is prepared to expand capacities within Austria. Before the pandemic, Lifebrain, which Havel co-founded, was most active providing laboratory work in Italy.

“Everybody Gargles” tests are already part of the rigorous testing regime in schools — with students tested several times a week — and Vienna is now looking to expand the system into kindergartens too.

‘Gas and break at same time’
Ulrich Elling, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who helped develop the gargling method, said the “Alles Gurgelt” system was “extremely efficient”.

“So far this test strategy has made a lot of sense… (but) now with Omicron, everything is different. If you go for ‘herd immunity,’ then the question is to what extent it makes sense to step on the gas and brake at the same time,” he told AFP.

For his part, Havel is not concerned that the tests won’t be needed any time soon.

“In autumn I fear that the next wave will come our way… I think testing will only not be necessary anymore once the pandemic is over,” he says.


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Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in Austria

As the Easter holidays begin, here's all you need to know in order to get a free Covid test and what to do if it comes back positive.

Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in Austria

Easter holidays are a big deal in Europe, with many countries having an entire week of days off of school and families travelling all over the continent.

So if you are heading to Austria, here’s what you need to know to enjoy the nice weather without (so many) concerns.

Entry rules to Austria

First things first: are you following the country’s entry rules? Austria has eased restrictions for travellers back in February. People only need to show proof that they are either fully vaccinated against Covid-19, have recently recovered from it or can show a negative Covid-19 test result.

Austria accepts vaccines from several laboratories as proof of vaccination for entry into the territory, including the Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm.

Travellers who can show the so-called 3G proof don’t need to quarantine or fill in any online forms. Additionally, children under the age of 12 are exempt from the regulations. They do not need to be tested, vaccinated, or recovered.

READ ALSO: Travel: What are Austria’s current entry and Covid rules?

What do I do if I suspect I have Covid-19?

If there is only suspicion, you should get tested. There are several ways to get tested for free in Austria, but if you have symptoms, you should call the Austrian health line on number 1450.

A nurse will be able to assess your symptoms and either classify you as a suspected case or give you further information on how to reach a general practitioner – or even go to a hospital if necessary.

If you are a suspected case, you could be referred to a specific test facility, or someone will be sent to the place where you are staying for a PCR test.

You can check a list of Vienna testing centres here.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: What to do if you test positive in Austria

How can I get tested for free?

Since April 1st, Austria has changed its testing policy, and free Covid-19 tests are no longer unlimited in the country.

People will be entitled to five PCR and five antigen tests a month, though testing as a suspected case does not fall into that limit.

One of the easiest ways to get a free Covid PCR test, especially for people who don’t speak German, is using the Alles Gurgelt offers. For this, you need to sign up to the website, which is also available for Upper Austria.

When you click “jetzt registrieren“, you are taken to the partner company website. There are several languages to pick from, including English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

When asked for a social security number, you can just enter the digit 0000 together with your date of birth, as instructed by the website.

Tourists can also use test streets and “test boxes”, as you only need to bring a registration confirmation and an official ID and wear an FFP2 mask. The registration is made online, and you can check a box stating that you don’t have an Austrian social security number (Sozialversicherungsnummer).

READ ALSO: Vienna: How tourists, visitors (and residents) can get free Covid tests

What if my test comes back positive?

If you have tested positive for Covid-19, you are required to stay in isolation, which can be done in a hotel room, rented property, or in the house of the people you are staying with. In the latter case, your friends and family staying in the same place as you won’t have to go into quarantine.

If they are fully vaccinated, they are not considered contact persons. However, they should still get tested.

While in isolation, you are not allowed to leave the place you are staying for any other reason than health and safety emergencies.

You need to stay at home quarantined for 10 days. The quarantine can be ended automatically after five days if a PCR test comes back negative or with a CT value above 30 if you don’t have any symptoms for at least 48h.

READ ALSO: Austria: I’ve stashed away Covid tests. Can I use them from April?

Can I return home if I test positive?

Public health officers can decide whether individuals are allowed to travel home. Usually, this is allowed when travelling by private car. Train or plane journeys are not permitted with suspected or confirmed symptoms.

Useful vocabulary

Absonderungsbescheid: A segregation notice obliges a person to isolate himself from other people as much as possible. This is often referred to as quarantine.
Kontaktpersonen: Contact persons are persons who have been in contact (shake hands, conversation,…) with a person who tested positive.
Ansteckung: Infection.
Verdachtsfall: Suspected case.
Testergebnis: Test result.