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Europe too has a COVID testing crisis, and a Christmas Omicron wave is making it worse

December 24, 2021, 11:41 AM UTC

Across much of Europe, public health officials are sounding the alarm: COVID testing kits are in short supply just as Omicron cases rise to near-record levels ahead of the Christmas holiday rush.

Long queues are beginning to form outside rapid-testing centers in Rome, Madrid and Milan. In Germany, consumer groups and employers are grumbling about a sudden spike in the price of testing kits (if they can even be obtained). And in some parts of France, appointments at a pharmacy for a COVID swab test are as hard to get as a restaurant reservation.

The surge in testing coincides with an ominous surge in Omicron cases.

According to the latest figures compiled by Our World in Data, France, Italy and the United Kingdom have seen a far bigger spike in testing than what’s currently happening in the United States.

Here’s what the COVID testing situation looks like across some European countries.

Italy

Last year, nationwide lockdown measures meant Christmas was a relatively solitary affair for most Italians; families were split up, save for Zoom or FaceTime video calls. This year, Italians are free to move around the country. But in a nation with so many 80- and 90-year-olds—Italy consistently ranks near the top for life expectancy—Italians are taking extra precautions.

On Thursday, Omicron pushed Italy’s COVID numbers over 45,000, a doubling in the past ten days. The effect can be seen at pharmacies and testing centers. Droves of Italians were getting tested in recent days before making the journey to the parents and grandparents’ homes for a weekend of feasting on nonna‘s cooking. They’re finding hours-long waits to get tested.

In Milan, the surge in demand led to a variety of tech glitches that exacerbated the waits. The hold-up got so bad at one point on Thursday that Roberto Carlo Rossi, president of a doctors union, told the Italian daily, La Stampa, “I am very worried about the situation of the swabs and the malfunction of the computer systems. The situation is unmanageable and can be seen from the long lines in front of pharmacies.”

It wasn’t just Milan. In a tweet that captured the mood of the nation, an Italian man sounded off that the queues at the pharmacy for a rapid antigen test were probably longer than those found at the fishmonger.

“We’re going crazy,” he grumbled.

Germany

In Germany, where rapid antigen tests have been a way of life for most people throughout the year, there are few enormous queues outside the country’s thousands of testing centers, and appointments remain freely available despite the recent introduction in many places of so-called 2G+ rules, which require even vaccinated and recovered people to get tested before entering shops.

Germany started offering free rapid tests to everyone in March, paying many pandemic-struck businesses who converted their premises into testing centers. In an attempt to discourage unvaccinated people who were using these free tests to access facilities, federal and state governments made a contentious decision in October to halt free testing. They partly reversed course within a month, allowing people to get tested for free at least once a week (the tests otherwise typically cost around €20.)

The story is not quite so rosy when it comes to the at-home rapid tests that people regularly use before meeting friends and family. In the summer, they were piled high everywhere, available for as little as $1 apiece. These days, they cost more in the $3-$5 range, hitting consumers and businesses alike. And earlier this month, with the fast-moving Omicron variant dominating headlines, many drugstores and grocery stores did start to report shortages.

Karl Lauterbach, Germany’s bowtie-sporting new health minister, said earlier this week that test manufacturers had assured him they were not finding a problem pumping out enough product, even though demand was high. He repeated the government’s advice that people test themselves regularly around Christmas, ideally on consecutive days.

Handelsblatt reported Thursday that some companies were finding it more difficult than usual to source tests for their workers. Although major retailers such as the Edeka supermarket chain and the dm and Rossmann drugstore chains say they have plenty of stock, consumer advocates told the business daily that many people do not have reliable, cheap supplies.

The consumer advocates’ complaints were not just about stock levels and price, but also about the quality of the tests themselves. There are reportedly more than 600 different rapid tests on the market in Germany, mostly from China, and fewer than half have been quality-assured by the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s federal institute for vaccines and biomedicines.

“The consumer has no security when it comes to availability and reliability,” Eugen Brysch, head of the Germany Foundation for Patient Protection, told Handelsblatt. Brysch also called for rapid tests to be given the highest classification for medical devices, to ensure the quality of what goes on shelves.

France

With France on Thursday reporting more than 91,000 COVID-19 infections in a 24-hour period—a record for the pandemic—President Emmanuel Macron posted on his Instagram feed a video shot on his iPhone, appealing for caution over Christmas, and urging people to be tested. “Even if you’re vaccinated, test yourself or go get tested, to be certain you are not carrying the virus before you get together with your relatives, particularly if they are older,” he told them.

In fact, the French have been pouring into testing sites for days, as the Christmas vacation begins. About 6.2 million people—nearly 10% of the entire population—have been tested over the past week, according to government statistics on Friday—perhaps one reason, aside from Omicron’s transmission, for France’s record number of infections. Last week, several shopping centers began offering COVID-19 rapid tests to meet the huge demand.

Still the country’s network of pharmacies—a standard feature of every neighborhood in the country—have been overwhelmed with customers needing tests before Christmas. “To be honest, it is really complicated. The days are extremely long,” Paris pharmacist Mikhaël Habib said on BFM Television on Friday morning. “We are under huge pressure.”

The large number of self-administered rapid tests are not included in that official figure. Until a few days ago, many pharmacies still appeared to have plenty of tests, on sale for about five euros each. Fortune was able to buy 20 home tests last Saturday from two separate pharmacies in Paris, in preparation for a Christmas gathering. Now, there are signs in many pharmacy windows telling customers they have no more COVID-19 tests in stock. “Let me show you the shelf where the self-tests are normally kept,” pharmacist Marie-Claire Denoual in the city of Rennes, in western France, told a local reporter on Wednesday. “It has been empty for 15 days now.”

Appointments for PCR tests, given at laboratories across France, have been booked up for weeks for the days before Christmas. Testing tents set up on the sidewalks by pharmacies have seen some lines of people waiting, for the first time since they began appearing earlier this year. The results of the nasal swabs arrive within about 15 minutes in people’s smartphones, with a QR code that is then uploaded to a government app, and scanned at the doors of movie theaters, sporting arenas, and many restaurants. As of October, those rapid tests have been free, covered by public health insurance, for fully vaccinated people, and cost €25 for those are not vaccinated—yet another rule the government imposed, in order to push people to get jabbed.

For those testing positive—the highest daily number in France on Thursday since the pandemic hit nearly two years ago—there is a sense of resignation, and upturned plans.

“It was positive,” one man told BFM Television outside a pharmacy in Paris on Wednesday. “We’ll spend Christmas among ourselves, and we’ve cancelled our vacation.”

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