The Austrian government is embarking on an ambitious effort to test its entire population for antibodies from the COVID-19 coronavirus after lifting its national lockdown on December 6.
The country’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Saturday that a three-week lockdown would begin on Tuesday and last until at least December 6, a bid to slow the spread of the virus after a more limited raft of restrictions failed to adequately cut the infection rate.
“If we do not react massively, there is a great risk that the numbers will continue to rise or remain at a high level and overstretch the health system,” Kurz said during the press conference announcing the measures.
“My urgent request: Do not meet anybody,” Kurz said, according to The New York Times. “Every social contact is one too many.”
The chancellor said that schools and most stores will have to close, and people would have to work from home unless they were physically required to be at their place of work.
Only essential reasons will be sufficient for leaving the house, he said, such as grocery shopping, going to medical appointments or attending church.
The Austrian government hopes to follow up the lockdown with a mass testing program that will include all 8.8 million Austrians, inspired by neighboring Slovakia’s bid to do the same. Kurz said teachers will be among the first tested—before lockdown ends—in order to try and re-open schools.
Kurz said the mass antibody testing will “bring about the safest possible Christmas,” and that armed forces would assist with the “logistical challenge” of the project. The government plans to release more details about the plan at the end of next week, Die Presse reported.
The tests will check for COVID-19 antibodies in subjects’ blood. If present, they mean the person has contracted COVID-19 and recovered, giving them some immunity. It is thought that the extent and length of immunity differs from person to person.
Experts have questioned the value of mass antibody testing without parallel PCR tests, which are used to test if subjects actually have COVID at the time. This gives warning before antibody testing, which only identifies the presence of antibodies after an infection.
PCR testing allows authorities to break the infection chain and isolate those who may spread the disease. But PCR testing can also be slow, and there have been concerns over the accuracy of the tests.
The Lancet has said mass antibody testing raises its own safety concerns. “One study, however, has suggested that some specificities and sensitivities are much lower than those reported,” the journal wrote in October in response to the Slovakian plan.
“Experts also point to increased risk of infection at testing sites and concerns over massive logistical challenges,” it added.
Kurz is under pressure to act. On Friday, Austria recorded 9,586 cases in a 24-hour period—a record since the start of the pandemic and some nine times more than during the country’s initial peak in March.
The recent surge has threatened to overwhelm the country’s hospitals. COVID-19 patients were occupying 567 of Austria’s 2,000 intensive care beds on Saturday, The Local reported.
To date, Austria has reported almost 204,000 coronavirus cases with 1,829 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.