The Court of Auditors in Austria has scrutinized the country’s handling of COVID-19 tests and questioned the effectiveness of the wide range of testing options, according to a recent preliminary report. The report reveals that Austria spent at least 5.2 billion euros on coronavirus tests by the end of 2022, with over 306.4 million tests conducted by March 2022, excluding home tests. Comparatively, Austria carried out 16 times more tests through various channels than Germany. However, the report criticizes the lack of concrete benefits from the extensive testing options.
The Ministry of Health defended the decision to implement widespread testing programs, stating that it aimed to achieve broad coverage during a phase of the pandemic when a decline in new infections was expected. Screening programs in federal states, testing in companies and schools were part of this approach. However, the report suggests that testing became less effective in curbing new infections after the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant, leading the government to reduce the number of free tests over a year ago, resulting in significant cost reductions.
The Court of Auditors focused its examination on the years 2020 and 2021, specifically analyzing the testing activities of the Ministry of Health, the province of Vienna, and Lower Austria. The report highlights the challenge of coordinating and controlling the overall testing program due to the involvement of multiple ministries and the lack of data. This lack of data made it difficult to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of different testing approaches and make informed decisions about their limitations.
The Court of Auditors recommends that the Ministry of Health take greater responsibility for pandemic management, ensuring that other entities do not make decisions that deviate from the national testing strategy. The report suggests a targeted and risk-oriented approach to testing, expanding population-wide testing only based on the epidemiological situation and cost-benefit analysis compared to surveillance programs.
The Court of Auditors emphasizes the need for a coordinated testing program adapted to the epidemiological situation, with a balanced cost-benefit ratio. This requires a solid strategic foundation, data for monitoring and evaluation, and control measures to avoid duplication and parallel structures. The report criticizes the lack of coordination and quality-assured data, making it challenging to assess the impact of testing on the epidemiological situation.
Throughout 2021, the Ministry of Health frequently changed its testing strategy, but a new strategy was only published in April 2022. The report points out the lack of long-term commitments for expanding PCR tests in federal states, causing difficulties in planning and coordination. The federal government covered the extensive testing costs without analyzing the average costs of different types of tests.
With the emergence of new virus variants, the Ministry of Health returned to a risk-based testing approach in April 2022. The report highlights the absence of standardized guidelines for wastewater monitoring, hindering result comparison and national monitoring efforts.
The Court of Auditors highlights the need for a more streamlined and data-driven approach to COVID-19 testing in Austria, focusing on targeted testing strategies and coordination between various entities to optimize cost-effectiveness and effectiveness in combating the pandemic.