Coronavirus: questions raised over Switzerland’s low test rate

Swiss broadcaster RTS has raised questions about the level of SARS-CoV-2 testing in Switzerland, which in recent months has been significantly lower than some other developed nations.

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Numerous infectious disease experts have talked of the importance of testing. Chains of transmission cannot be broken without knowing who is infected.

Daniel Pittet, head of infectious disease at Geneva’s HUG hospital described testing as a form of prevention. According to him, spread of the virus got going again over summer. Pittet is known as the originator of practice of using alcoholic hand gel to prevent disease, something known as the Geneva Hand Hygiene Model.

During summer and up until mid-October 2020, Switzerland was significantly behind the US, UK and most of its neighbours in terms of per capita testing. At the end of August 2020, the UK was testing 258 people per 100,000 and the US 263. At the same time Switzerland was testing 125 per 100,000. France (202) and Germany (190) were testing more too. Austria (126) and Italy (91) were the only neighbouring nations testing at similar levels to Switzerland.

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The level of positivity in Switzerland also suggests testing has been insufficient. Between May and October 2020, test positivity – the percentage of tests coming back positive – in Switzerland was comfortably below 5%. However, during October 2020 testing appears to have failed to keep up with infections and positivity rose rapidly. By 28 October 2020, positivity had reached 28%, a rate significantly higher than the rates in neighbouring nations.

On 28 October 2020, the federal government announced increased testing. In addition to PCR testing, rapid testing would be rolled out from 2 November 2020. These tests are not as effective at detecting infection as PCR tests, but they are fast and easier to process. Results can be obtained in 15 minutes. Fast results should accelerate contact tracing and isolation, increasing the chances of breaking chains of transmission and reducing spread. Unlike PCR tests these rapid tests do not need to be processed in laboratories, which have limited capacity. A recent study suggests some rapid tests pick up 85% of those testing positive on PCR tests, a percentage which rises to 94% among those considered most contagious.

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According to Alain Berset, Switzerland’s interior minister, the nation has the capacity to process around 30,000 PCR tests a day. Rapid testing will add capacity to conduct a further 50,000 daily tests.

More on this:
RTS article (in French) – Take a 5 minute French test now

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