Covid-19 : PCR labs face difficult investment decisions
Lubeck/augsburg corona has created an extreme demand for PCR testing. Laboratories are working to their limits and should actually increase their capacity. But how long will the tests be needed?
German laboratory physicians are currently overwhelmed with work. Millions of PCR tests have to be processed, the corona crisis is causing unprecedented workloads in the laboratories and in some cases high profits.
But this also means expenses and risk, as andreas bobrowski, chairman of the board of the professional association of german laboratory physicians, says. Because at the moment, no one can say how long the high demand for tests will last and whether the purchase of expensive equipment will pay off.
Basically, there are three different remuneration levels for PCR tests, says Bobrowski, who runs his own laboratory in Lubeck with colleagues. The 35 euros per test billed by health insurance companies covers "only the bare costs," he emphasizes. What’s left of the 43.56 euros the government pays for tests it reimburses is urgently needed. After all, staff must be retained even in times of low utilization.
Several years of training necessary
The employees are a high – and highly sought-after – asset, emphasizes bobrowski. For the core tasks, several years of training are necessary, he says. "you can’t show this to someone for a short time," he emphasizes. Only auxiliary work, such as entering data or sticking notes, can be done by assistants, he says. These support staff are on fixed-term contracts, but for trained lab staff, he expects there will be no layoffs after the corona wave. "We are happy for everyone who stays with us," says the laboratory doctor.
The risk of purchasing the equipment is greater. Depending on the size, it can be thousands of euros or millions, says bobrowski. Because demand is high, equipment and materials are currently expensive. In addition, large-scale equipment can hardly be leased – unlike the usual situation. A laboratory must therefore decide whether it is prepared to spend large sums of money on equipment that will in all likelihood be much less utilized when the pandemic ends.
Example of the synlab laboratory chain
But they are used to dealing with such risks, says Bobrowski. And as long as the salaries are not lowered even further, we can plan for it. "I would estimate that few go out with minus," he says.
The extent to which corona can affect the finances of laboratories can be seen, for example, at the listed augsburg laboratory chain synlab. In the first nine months of 2021 – more recent figures are not yet available – earnings there shot up, also thanks to revenue from PCR tests. Sales also increased massively.
But all that can be over quickly. Am 10. November, when the current omicron wave was not yet foreseeable, synlab predicted a decline in sales of several hundred million euros for the year 2022, partly due to an expected decline in corona testing. This may ultimately turn out to be different in view of the development of the pandemic, as individual analysts also say. But it makes clear how quickly business can also collapse again.