“Give back freedom”: in the COVID-19 test center in Germany at Frankfurt airport

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At Germany’s busiest airport in Frankfurt, the longest queues these days are not at check-in or security, but at the state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing center just outside the main arrivals hall.Wearing distinctive red T-shirts, employees of Centogene, the private test lab that manages the facility, take passengers through an assembly line, where they often meet Dr Peter Bauer, the neurologist and geneticist who oversees the facility. ‘surgery.

“We’re giving people back some freedom,” Bauer told CBC News in an interview.

Since the facility opened at the end of June, Centogene said, more than 150,000 travelers have taken its COVID-19 rapid test.

“They’re anxious about how to get around society, how to travel, and how to meet people, and with a negative test – and most tests are negative – they get some freedom,” Bauer said.

Airlines support passenger testing

Canadian airlines Air Canada and WestJet recently began voluntary testing for COVID-19 at airports in Toronto and Vancouver in hopes of convincing the federal government that airport testing is a safe way to resume plane.

And the national association that represents Canada’s largest airlines is pressuring Ottawa to consider relaxing the 14-day quarantine for inbound travelers in exchange for a negative COVID test, much like Germany did it all summer.

A Centogene staff member is asking passengers to register for the COVID-19 test center at Frankfurt Airport. Germany is one of the only places in Europe to offer such tests at an airport convenient for travelers. (Chris Brown / CBC)

Germany is one of the only places in Europe to offer such tests at an airport convenient for travelers.

Some countries, like Russia, require COVID-free certificates to enter, with testing done within 72 hours, and Frankfurt was one of the only places possible.

We went through the airport and passed the tests as part of our return to the CBC office in Moscow two weeks ago.

At the Frankfurt facility, inbound and outbound passengers have the option of being tested – although this is mandatory for anyone arriving from a designated “high-risk” area, which includes the United States.

Results in as little as 3 hours

Passengers register online first, then wait on a physically distant line to receive a take-out-sized red box containing several test tubes and two long throat swabs.

They then walk down the line to a private area, where a technician scratches the back of his throat with the tampons – often to the sound of a lot of gagging and coughing.

Passengers line up while waiting to be tested for COVID-19 at Frankfurt Airport. Incoming and outgoing passengers have the option of getting tested – although this is mandatory for anyone arriving from a designated “high-risk” area, which includes the United States. (Chris Brown / CBC)

“Going through the throat is much less painful [than going through the nose] but with just as much sensitivity, ”said Bauer.

Next, one of the facility’s six doctors performs a visual check for any signs of typical COVID-19 symptoms: dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath. The samples are then sent to a nearby lab, and in as little as three hours the test results and doctor’s certificate arrive by email.

Throughout the summer, German citizens took the test for free, although local media reported that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government may change the rules to make it a user-pay system in the future and reinstate quarantine for those who do not take the test.

Travelers in transit who need a test to reach their destination country are charged 59 euros, or about C $ 100. A premium test that gets results in three hours costs about double.

A Centogene worker in a red shirt displays a take-out box containing several test tubes and two long throat swabs that Frankfurt air travelers receive before being tested for COVID-19. (Chris Brown / CBC)

“We believe testing is the only way to make travel safer,” said Volkmar Weckesser, CIO of Centogene.

“When you look at the tourism industry, do we really want to destroy it completely? Do people no longer really want to travel and stay at home? I don’t believe that, ”Weckesser told CBC News.

The Canadian airline industry has given its full approval to the airport testing.

“We would like to see Canada on a targeted basis creating ‘safe zones’ and airlifts on the basis of testing,” said Mike McNaney, President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada.

End the general quarantine?

McNaney said it was too late for Canada to come out of what he calls “phase zero,” which is the same place the industry was located in March. He said that a “general” quarantine of all countries, regardless of their health status, no longer makes sense.

He said the voluntary testing programs launched by Canada’s two largest airlines are a positive step and should allow government regulators to develop “science-based practices and procedures” that can offer alternatives to quarantines and general restrictions.

Employees of diagnostics supplier Centogene work inside a container housing their mobile lab at the COVID-19 test center at Frankfurt Airport. Passenger samples are tested in the lab, and in less than three hours, test results and medical certificate arrive by email. (Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters)

Centogene claims that tests that turn out positive amount to around one percent, although some high-risk countries routinely have much higher numbers – up to eight percent.

“We have many positive points from Kosovo, Croatia and Serbia, [and other] countries like Ukraine and Russia – also the United States – that say nothing about the quality of the tests [in those countries], just that COVID-19 is there, ”said Bauer, the facility’s supervisor.

Testing could speed up transmission, critics say

But testing at airports has its detractors, who say such mass testing misses many cases and could potentially accelerate transmission of the virus across borders.

“Do we want COVID to spread or do we want it not to spread? And that’s the line in the sand for me, ”said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“We know you have a lot of false negative tests. There are a lot of different reasons, ”he said. “It may be that the swab was not taken well, you may not have incubated enough virus. ”

Furness said the sensitivity rate for those tests was 65%, which means about a third of cases are missed.

“We have to think about traveling less,” Furness said.

A passenger wears a mask and full face shield to protect against the novel coronavirus at Toronto Pearson International Airport in June. The national association that represents Canada’s largest airlines is lobbying Ottawa to consider relaxing the 14-day quarantine for inbound travelers in exchange for a negative COVID test. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

Centogene’s Weckesser argues that it is impractical to wait for a vaccine to resolve the COVID-19 crisis. He said the world needs to keep doing business – and that includes travel.

“A vaccine could be available next year, we don’t know when, and it will take a long time to get everyone vaccinated,” he said.

Beyond that, if regular vaccines only confer immunity for a few months at a time, testing facilities like the one in Frankfurt could exist for years, he said.

But statements by Canada’s chief public health officer haven’t given the airline industry much hope for a change to the 14-day quarantine law anytime soon. Dr Theresa Tam said more research is needed.

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