EU Nation That Beat First Wave of Virus Now Wants to Test Everyone

The European nation that protected its population better than any other from Covid-19 at the start of the global pandemic is now trying to do one better -- by testing almost its entire population for the virus.

Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million people on the European Union’s eastern border, is preparing to launch a two-stage process using cheap antibody tests to help stop the resurgence in new cases that’s sweeping across the continent.

Others have shown success in mass testing, with China canvassing cities with populations far exceeding Slovakia’s and Taiwan not registering a domestic case in more than 200 days. But none has yet tried to test nearly all of its citizens.

Encouraged by turnout of more than 90% at a pilot round last weekend, Prime Minister Igor Matovic is pushing the idea as an alternative to reimposing the measures far harsher than in the spring, when lockdowns wiped out more than 10% of most European economies.

“We will save hundreds of lives,” he said this week.

While most testing uses so-called PCR kits aimed at identifying the virus in patients, Slovakia will rely on cheaper antibody tests in an experiment closely watched by the 27-member European Union. This week, the bloc’s executive commission pledged to spend 100 million euros ($117 million) for member states to purchase the tests, which are able to provide results within 15 minutes.

The two-day program will start on Saturday at 7 a.m. and be repeated a week later. Anyone who doesn’t take part must show proof of a negative test to be able to move around in public. In the weekend pilot, about 5,600 people, or 4%, were positive and were put into quarantine. The true rate may be as much as three times higher, however, as the test fails to catch the virus when people haven’t developed an immune response.

President Zuzana Caputova cast doubt on the chance of full success, saying more than a third of the 5,000 testing stations were still lacking medical personnel, despite a last-minute government offer of a 500-euro bonus for volunteers. That suggests the plan to test everyone over the age of 10 won’t be possible, she said.

“It’s clear that hundreds of thousands of people won’t be able to get a test,” she said Friday in Bratislava. “I’ve asked the premier to carry out the tests where handling of samples is arranged. But I’ve also asked him to review the curfew rules and not punish those” without a test.

Critics suggest the initiative is aimed more at shoring up Matovic’s flagging popularity than eradicating the virus. Caputova found out about the plan when Matovic announced it during a news conference. By that time, his government had already purchased 13 million testing kits for about $5 each.

“This isn’t an expert operation, but a political operation,” said Marian Kollar, head of Slovakia’s Medical Chamber. The country “shouldn’t take steps that don’t have any significant impact on the spread of the pandemic.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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