Coronavirus – Why PCR tests are in short supply

A year and a half is a long time in a pandemic. It can happen that you meet old friends again and again, in this specific case: old, familiar problems. Not for the first time has the demand exceeded the supply of tests. Now again. Right from the start, the government decided to organize 25,000 PCR tests a day. She failed. This number could only be guaranteed after several months. In autumn, however, with the second wave, the tests were again in short supply, as the numbers began to climb almost simultaneously across Europe and demand rose everywhere.

Where there is high demand, the market usually reacts too. It was no different with the PCR tests. Austria was able to become the test world champion with more than 60,000 tests per day in the third wave in spring. And now? There is again a shortage. In eight out of nine federal states there are reports of long queues in front of test stations, delays in evaluating the results and missing test kits. The exception was Vienna, where the “everything gurgles” campaign with PCR tests for at home has been established since March.

The reasons for the shortage – this is also an old friend – are varied in nature. A clear responsibility cannot be made out. In principle, there was political agreement in the summer to roll out the much more precise PCR tests throughout Austria for screenings as well. The antigen tests should be replaced slowly as they miss too many infected people.

The switch to the test strategy was originally planned for the fall. That is why the Federal Procurement Agency (BBG) tendered a framework agreement for PCR screenings over the summer, including everything that goes with it: test acceptance, logistics, analysis. But then Delta let the number of cases rise earlier than expected, for access to the night-time catering a negative PCR result was suddenly necessary for unvaccinated people at the end of July. The federal states were therefore quickly obliged to expand the offer, although the tender was still running. This was only completed on August 9th.

Delinquent federal states

At the same time, however, more and more people received a certificate and were no longer dependent on the PCR tests. Therefore, the demand remained constant at 60,000 daily – and the large nationwide rollout did not materialize. On August 20, Upper Austria submitted an application to the federal government on the basis of the framework agreement so that the federal government would cover the costs of the state-wide screening. The application was inadequate, as the Ministry of Health explains. After that, nothing happened for many weeks. “A definitive screening request was finally submitted on November 2nd. It was approved on November 3rd,” it said.

Upper Austria was not the only federal state that remained in default. Such a framework agreement serves the purpose of simplification. The federal states do not have to advertise separately, but can call up orders from the pool of 21 providers. If the federal government is to pay, this must be requested separately.

It was not until October that the demand for PCR tests outside of Vienna rose sharply. This has to do with the increased number of infections: on Tuesday there were 10,363 new infections across Austria within 24 hours. At the same time, however, other drivers also have an impact on demand, such as the mandatory 3G rule in the workplace.

Hamster purchases on the world market

In Carinthia, people complained publicly that it had been suggested that there was sufficient laboratory capacity. “There was talk of 17 million a week,” said Health Councilor Beate Prettner (SPÖ). That would be 2.4 million a day. 325,000 PCR tests are currently evaluated daily. The BBG is amazed at the accusation. The number in the room is not understandable at all, they say. In secret, there is also criticism of the laboratories because they overestimated their capacities.

At least that shouldn’t be entirely wrong if you ask around the laboratories themselves. Maximum capacities were specified in the tender, but scaling is now difficult. Also because everyone has to do it at the same time.

First, there is a shortage of manpower, such as biomedical analysts. The laboratories are desperately looking for staff. Second, the high number of cases means that the test pools with up to ten samples have to be evaluated individually more frequently. In Vienna the positive rate is 1.5 percent, which is still manageable, in other federal states more than one in ten samples is sometimes positive.

Thirdly, because demand is increasing everywhere in Europe, as it was a year ago, some resources are scarce. The Salzburg Novogenia laboratory reports that some test tubes have run out. Other consumables are also in short supply there and there. The Viennese laboratory Lifebrain, which offers the gargle tests, has bought in advance and emphasizes to this newspaper that it can still evaluate a capacity of up to 500,000 tests.

In the federal states in particular, however, the logistics are also challenging. And this must now pass the endurance test when there is, of all things, maximum demand. It would have been a lot easier to slowly expand the offer in September. It’s too late for that. Once again you couldn’t imagine what happened last year and what could be deduced from the models would happen.

The Ministry of Health reacted to the current shortage with a slight relaxation: Those employees who are affected by the stricter 2.5G rule (in hospitals, nursing homes and old people’s homes as well as in night catering) can also return if a PCR test is “unusable” submit an antigen test (3G rule).

The situation in Carinthia remains tense. Also because of a corona cluster – in a laboratory that does the evaluations. They say you hire new employees, but that takes time.

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