Slovakia, EU nation that beat first wave of Covid-19, now wants to test everyone

Slovakia is preparing to launch a two-stage process using cheap antibody tests.
Slovakia is preparing to launch a two-stage process using cheap antibody tests.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRATISLAVA (BLOOMBERG) - 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 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 all of its citizens.

Encouraged by turnout of more than 90 per cent at a pilot round last weekend, Prime Minister Igor Matovic has vowed to make Slovakia the world's first country to know the full scope of contagion in its borders.

He has pushed the idea as an alternative to reimposing measures far harsher than in the spring, when lockdowns wiped out more than 10 per cent 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 (S$159 million) for member states to purchase the tests, which are able to provide results within 15 minutes.

The two-day programme will start on Saturday (Oct 31) at 7am 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 per cent, were positive and were put into quarantine.

The true rate may be as much as three times higher, however, as the test fails to identify cases in people who haven't yet developed an immune response.

Medical experts have expressed scepticism, as the authorities won't follow up positive cases with PCR tests and contact tracing, while the initiative may exhaust an already stretched healthcare system.

A day before starting, officials were still seeking enough volunteer medical personnel to administer the tests.

Critics suggest it's aimed more at shoring up Mr Matovic's flagging popularity among voters than eradicating the virus.

President Zuzana Caputova found out about the plan when Mr Matovic announced it during a news conference.

By that time, his government had already purchased 13 million testing kits for about US$5 (S$7) each.

"This isn't an expert operation, but a political operation," said Dr Marian Kollar, the 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".