Germany eyes antigen tests to keep elderly safe in 2nd wave

BERLIN (AP) — As Europe tries to break the surging second wave of coronavirus infections, Germany is counting on a new type of test to avoid closing nursing homes to visitors, a move that caused considerable anguish among residents and relatives in the spring.

So-called antigen tests, which look for a specific protein on the virus, were first launched months ago. They are cheap and fast, but experts said at the time they are also less accurate than the standard PCR test, which detects even the tiniest genetic trace of the virus.

Still, Germany — which has managed to contain the spread of the outbreak better than many of its neighbours — announced recently that it is bulk-buying millions of antigen tests each month.

“We have a new strategy,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Monday. “We can now basically perform rapid tests on visitors to nursing and care homes.”

Nursing homes will receive up to 20 free monthly tests per resident. These can be used to test patients, staff and — crucially — visiting relatives, who might be unwitting carriers of COVID-19, posing a potentially devastating threat.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. PHOTO: AP

“Health insurers will cover the costs for a certain number of visitors each month,” Merkel said. “That’s huge progress in terms of protection.”

Germany has one of the world’s oldest populations. More than 24 million people are 60 or older and about 900,000 people live in nursing homes. A further 2.5 million younger people have serious disabilities.

That means almost 30 per cent of Germany’s population of 83 million are particularly vulnerable to the virus, Merkel said.

“Almost everyone knows somebody they don’t want to infect,” she said.

Germany has reported about 550,000 coronavirus cases — less than half the number recorded in Britain, Spain and France. Germany’s confirmed virus death toll of 10,669 is also one-fourth of Britain’s.

A Health Ministry spokeswoman told The Associated Press that manufacturers have agreed to supply Germany with nine million such tests in November and 11.5 million tests in December.