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Belgian school abandons saliva tests

This method of screening had however been presented as a brake on the spread of the virus in compulsory education.

This method of screening had however been presented as a brake on the spread of the virus in compulsory education.

From our correspondent, Max Helleff (Brussels) – It’s a new quack in the race against the virus. In Belgium, saliva tests were supposed to allow a safe “return to school” from April 19. On the contrary, they are simply abandoned because of the heavy logistics and the cost involved in this screening method.

In early March, however, a pilot project was launched with a lot of publicity in the media. Twenty schools on the French-speaking side, forty on the Flemish side, took part. Principals and teachers had bowed to the unwelcome ritual of morning spitting under the watchful eye of the cameras. Turnout rose from 45% the first week to 70% the last. A positivity rate of 0.3% was measured at the end of the pilot project. Several clusters had been detected, including one in Ottignies (south of Brussels), detected only through saliva testing. In total, two schools have closed their doors.

“Which is positive,” told the Evening Fabrice Bureau, vice-rector for research at ULiège and promoter of the project, “since this made it possible to limit the spread of the virus before members of staff show symptoms”.

But the problems have multiplied. In Flanders, the receptacles used were not adequate to collect the quantity of saliva needed by the laboratories. Then the encoding turned out to be partly faulty. Finally, the practice of saliva tests was not enough to silence the apprehensions of those who had to go to school every day to work there. School which, let us remember, had ended up being closed early before the Easter holidays because it was suspected of actively spreading the virus.

The pilot project thus highlighted the limits of saliva tests. These do not dispense with the respect of the usual sanitary measures. But at the end of the day, it was the logistical heaviness linked to the routing of the tests to the laboratories that was fatal to them. According to the French-speaking Minister of Education Caroline Désir, “the logistical challenge is an insoluble headache for the saliva testing strategy, in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation as in Flanders, and the first analyzes show very limited benefits”. Accusations which the promoter of the project defended, affirming that these pitfalls had been clearly identified before its launch. “It is enough that the ministers snap their fingers and the next day, we are in the schools”, pleaded Fabrice Bureau.

The Belgian school is now turning to self-tests. According to Commissioner Corona Pedro Facon, however, they will not be distributed before the end of the month, leaving the management of schools without ad hoc screening during the fifteen days that will separate this time from the start of the April 19 school year.

This choice is synonymous with lower efficiency: saliva tests are reliable between 65% and 80% for highly infected people. Self-tests are fallible within an estimated range of 40 to 60%. However, 500,000 saliva tests have been ordered. In the future, they could be intended only for higher education schools.

This waltz-hesitation does not bode well for the reopening of schools next Monday. Flanders has decided to return to the previous situation: face-to-face school for pupils from kindergarten to secondary school and hybrid education (50% face-to-face, 50% distance lessons) for 14-18 year olds. French-speaking Belgium is still feeling its way.


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