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Coronavirus: Vienna begins ‘cluster buster’ bus service to test schoolchildren

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Vienna has launched a “cluster buster” bus service which it hopes will curb new Covid-19 infections in city schools.

Austrian health authorities hope a fleet of blue buses manned with medical staff can help keep schools open – and the economy operating – as the autumn-winter cold and flu season arrives.

The bus service will operate on call around Vienna and show up at any school where a Covid-19 case is detected.

Staff and pupils can be tested on a bus using a new procedure. Accurate results can be provided within 30 minutes and, officials hope, stop new virus clusters in their tracks.

“The great [Covid-19] challenge is how we’re fighting the clock, all the time,” said Peter Hacker, a Vienna city counsellor. “Fast results are important to give security to our children, their parents and teachers.”

The secret behind the service, say Vienna officials, is a new test developed at a city clinic. Unlike the common PCR test – requiring a lab, technicians and time – four months testing the new Lamp method (loop mediated isothermal amplification) has shown its results, ready after half an hour, are just as accurate.

“The test kits cost only a fraction [of others] and are freely available on the market,” said Dr Lothar Mayerhofer of the Donaustadt Clinic, which developed the test.

After a pilot run in the coming weeks, Viennese officials say they are open to expanding the service quickly, the second home-grown testing innovation in the Austrian capital in recent weeks.

Vienna has begun shifting its entire testing regime away from the traditional nose-throat swab system to a new “gurgle test”. This test, as well as being less invasive, has a quicker turnaround, with results available within 24 hours.

The new test requires people to gurgle a fluid for a minute in their throat and then spit the fluid into a testing jar – either in a testing centre or at home.

“Anyone who can gurgle can take this test, it’s not rocket science,” said Prof Michael Wagner, a Viennese microbiologist involved in developing the procedure.

Germany

Meanwhile in Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that the ongoing rise in Covid-19 cases there, left unchecked, could see the daily rate of infection hit more than 19,000 by Christmas.

At the height of the first wave of infections in March, Germany recorded 6,000 new infections daily. On Saturday, about 2,500 new cases were registered, the highest number since April but less than a quarter of the new cases in neighbouring France.

The German leader said on Monday she was “kept awake at night” by unnamed neighbouring countries that have allowed their infection rates to explode once more.

At a closed-door meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Dr Merkel said, according to participants: “We have to intervene to drive down quickly the infection spread. We have to set priorities: keep the economy going, keep schools and kindergartens open. Football is secondary.”

Germany’s Bundesliga matches resumed in July in empty stadiums, though tests are under way with matches in front of a limited number of fans. That could all be rolled back soon, according to the chancellor, along with private parties, pubs and religious services.

Many German federal states are imposing local restrictions to fight regional lockdowns after super-spreader events: parties, weddings and other private gatherings.

Dr Merkel will hold a video conference on Tuesday with German regional governments, who are largely responsible for Covid-19 public health.

During Monday’s CDU parliamentary party meeting, Dr Merkel reportedly said she was particularly worried about the infection rate in Berlin, the city-state capital. Infection rates in Berlin’s central Mitte neighbourhood have crashed through the ceiling – 50 per 100,000 of population – requiring a local lockdown.

“Something has to happen in Berlin,” said Dr Merkel.

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