Antonia* was sure she had the coronavirus, so handing over €49 to Schnelltest Berlin on Mitte’s Auguststraße was an easy decision. But there was a problem – she wasn’t sure she could trust her negative result.
“I don’t think the quick test stations take full responsibility or really educate the people about antigens in your bodies,” Antonia says. “I read about the quick test afterwards, and I realised that if I really want to be sure that I don’t have Corona, I need to do the PCR test.” She was also surprised by the lack of medical staff on-site. “I think they are just students, to be honest. They told the lady after me that there’s no doctor there.”
It’s easy to find a Schnelltest in Berlin. There are pop-up locations throughout the city – art galleries, doctors offices and even a nightclub. But how reliable are they?
As quick tests arrived in Germany, many local businesses took advantage of the chance to stay open. With most retailers and cultural establishments forced to close, becoming a private quick test centre seemed like the only solution to make some profit.
In comparison to the original RT-PCR test, the quick antigen test is cheaper. Results are available in less than 30 minutes and the staff doesn’t need to be particularly qualified – making it an easy product to trade.
There’s an ongoing debate among health specialists around the world who disagree over whether fast tests should be used for mass screening. Slovakia’s attempt to conduct quick antigen tests on its entire adult population – they tested more than half of all adults over the last weekend of October – has been criticised by some quarters. While the introduction of antigen tests relieved the pressure on overburdened health establishments and laboratories, the main problem with quick tests is that an alarming percentage of people receive a negative result despite carrying an infection.
In an interview with France Info, Carine Wolf-Thal, president of France’s National Council of the Chamber of Pharmacists, warned about the number of false negatives, which could be as high as one in three.
On positive tests, the reliability is good, with the best tests showing over 90 percent on positive results. As a result, the majority of the new improvised testing centres in Berlin promote a reliability percentage above 97 percent – almost as high as the PCR test’s proven accuracy. None seem to mention the high risk of obtaining false negatives.
According to The Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, there are currently around 320 antigen tests available for professional use in Germany. The list is regularly updated and contains the tests that, according to the manufacturer’s information, fulfil the minimum criteria for use. Some perform better than others. Not all test locations are as straightforward about which specific antigen test they chose, or perhaps the staff just don’t know.
REVIV Berlin, a vitamin and supplements store on Linienstraße, is one business that joined the trend. As a new “essential service”, not only can the store stay open during lockdown, but their usual goods remain on sale. You can get an antigen test with a certificate within 20 minutes for €59.
“We searched for a while to find a rapid test with a high safety standard,” a sales representative explains. “Prices in Berlin vary between €25 and €89. We adjusted ours to a reasonable price for us.”
False positives also seem to be a risk. Jane Silver, Exberliner’s food editor, had to quarantine for a week after her boyfriend received what turned out to be a false alarm from KitKat. But the relatively untrustworthy results aren’t stopping Berliners from getting tested at the iconic fetish club. According to a staff member, between 5000 to 6000 people visited KitKat daily for a Schnelltest before Christmas. Since the holidays, there have been at least 4000.
So should you trust the quick tests? Well, it’s complicated. Be prepared to pay a lot of money for results that cannot be guaranteed. It’s not surprising that many COVID rapid test centres recommend that a client check the results of a positive antigen rapid test with a follow-up PCR test. That said, we can’t manage the pandemic without quick tests. The Robert Koch Institute still recommends them to complement existing molecular PCR tests, which are too costly and laborious for mass testing. The decision is yours, but before you visit Oma or plan your trip to Greece, remember that RT-PCR tests are the most reliable option.