What you need to know about self-testing

Starting Saturday, trusted retailers will begin peddling corona self tests. Are they the solution to getting life back to some level of normalcy?

The three rs at an upper secondary school: Reading, writing, corona self-tests.
The three rs at an upper secondary school: Reading, writing, corona self-tests.dpa

Berlin-Like with so many things in this country, Germany's discount supermarkets Lidl and Aldi (as well as non-drug selling drugstore DM) are leading the way. Starting Saturday, Aldi will sell corona self-tests for everyone at €5 a pop, with the others soon following suit. The tests can allegedly deliver a yes or no after a simple swab in the nose and 15 minutes. The tests have even squeezed their way into current government plans to relax the lockdown. But it is really a possible solution to rely on the quick tests in their current scenario for relaxing the rules?  And will they really take Germans down the path out of lockdown?

What advantages do they have?

Unlike other rapid tests, self-tests don't have to be performed by medical personnel in an appropriate setting (doctor's office, hospital, care home). They are designed for ease-of-use by anyone. The government agrees and sees them as an important tool against the spread of the coronavirus.

Do self-tests increase protection?

Self-tests could increase protection, according to a paper from the health ministry. They can help in private settings when families meet and could also become a prerequisite for visiting restaurants, theatres, cinemas and concerts. Visitors might have to perform the self-tests on-site.

What do the experts say?

"Self-tests offer a certainty that doesn't exist," Spandau public health officer Gudrun Widders told the Berliner Zeitung. "If the test is negative, you have to be very careful. The result is only a snapshot. It doesn't mean that the person is also corona-free on subsequent days." She says it's important for consumers to react accordingly to positive tests. "Everybody has to understand that if they test positive, they must immediately self-quarantine and report to the health department (Gesundheitsamt)."  As with other rapid tests, a more precise PCR test must then be carried out to confirm the positive result. People who test positive should also seek medical treatment.

The German government agrees because even a negative test doesn't exempt anyone from adhering to social distancing, hygiene and mask rules. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the Paul Ehrlich Institute say rapid tests are particularly useful when infected persons have a high viral load. The infected person and close contacts can then be isolated more quickly.

What is the German government planning?

The meeting between the federal and state governments on Wednesday said testing was a vital part of loosening restrictions. Daycare and school teachers as well as pupils are to be given "one free quick test" per week when they attend in-person classes. Everyone actually is supposed to be able to be tested once a week at no charge in community testing centers or at their primary care physician. This isn't expected to happen nationwide until April, since sufficient rapid tests aren't yet available.

Are there even enough self-tests?

Six different self-tests have already been approved by the German pharmaceutical regulator and the first tests will soon be available in pharmacies. The German health ministry said it's working to secure an order of as many as 208 million units and a special task force is being discussed to organise the order. Supply Germany-wide won't yet be up and running this month. Berlin itself has ordered 12 million tests and has already received 3 million. Two million are expected in the coming days. They are primarily reserved for schools and daycares.