Proof at home: This is how video-monitored self-tests work

Instead of going to the corona test center, do you only need a smartphone? Providers of online rapid tests promise valid evidence in an uncomplicated way. Does this work? A practical test.

More and more test centers are closing. How and where can I get a certified coronavirus test certificate for dining out or going to the football stadium as a non-vaccinated and non-recovered person? Wouldn’t it be convenient if that could be done at home?

In fact, there are providers who offer video-monitored self-tests. The principle: You obtain an approved self-test and do it in front of the smartphone camera that is switched on. Trained people look at it, check it and, if everything was OK, send the – hopefully negative – test certificate.

So simple, so obvious. But does it also work smoothly? And are the certificates recognized everywhere? So much in advance: When it comes to the question of how much a video test certificate is worth, the providers and the Federal Ministry of Health have different views.

One problem, one solution

In and of themselves, the video-monitored tests solve a problem. Because the self-tests that are available in drugstores, pharmacies or supermarkets are permitted. But used alone, the result is nothing more than information for yourself. It is not enough to just show a test cassette as official proof that gives access somewhere. It needs a certificate.

The video-monitored tests are not free. With the provider “covidtestonline” it costs 14.90 euros, with competitor “Freetogo” 19.99 euros. The costs for purchasing the self-test are added, but are manageable: some of the tests are available from discounters for less than one euro. Lists can be used to check which rapid antigen tests the providers accept.

The prices for the video-monitored tests are therefore in the lower range of what self-payers would have to pay for rapid tests, for example in the test center. According to the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer advice center, they cost between around 18 and 40 euros. And since October 11th, almost everyone has to pay for that, because the offer of free citizen tests for everyone is over. The tests are only free for certain groups of people, for example children up to the age of twelve.

If you have to pay yourself anyway, you might prefer to save yourself the trip to the test center in the future and do the quick test at home. Does that also work smoothly?

Practice test I: Difficulties with the right attitude

You have to take some time for the test at home. At “covidtestonline” the certificate can be bought quickly, and a code will be sent by email with which the test can be started. After entering personal data and the ID number, there is a short digital identity check, then off you go.

With this provider you have to film the entire course of the test. So I take the smartphone and initially have problems aligning the camera so that I am in the picture – because I don’t have a tripod and can’t select the front camera to take the picture. This way I cannot see the screen and consequently cannot check whether the test materials and myself can always be seen clearly.

But at some point everything is aligned and the recording begins. Everything is recorded, from unpacking the test kit to taking the smear and developing the test strips. At the end you hold the cassette with the result in front of the camera for five seconds. All in all, you record around 20 minutes of video.

The check at the provider

Does anyone really look at it in its entirety? Yes, but the 15 minute waiting time until the test result is unwound faster, says Timo Scharpenberg, managing director of the company Coteon, which operates the “covidtestonline” portal. However, the winding is not too fast so that a possible exchange of the test cassette does not go unnoticed. Otherwise it would be easy to cheat.

In my case, everything seems to have worked out. A good quarter of an hour after the test, the result and certificate will be sent to you by email. In addition to German, you can choose two other languages. According to the provider, it takes a maximum of an hour to receive a message. Trained workers are on duty from 6 a.m. to midnight.

According to the provider, things don’t always run as smoothly as I did with me. “We don’t wave everyone through,” says Scharpenberg. The rejection rate is six to nine percent. A common mistake is that the customer stops recording too early and does not wait for the quarter of an hour to develop the test strips. At least: Then there is a free second attempt.

Practical test II: With instructions

The “freetogo” app, which is backed by a startup from the University of Potsdam, takes a different approach. Here the test takes place partly under supervision: You make a video phone call with a person who assists and observes the testing. This is convenient in that you don’t have to look at the instructions every step of the way. The conversation ends after the sample solution has been trickled onto the test cassette.

So that the test cassette cannot simply be exchanged for another one with a negative result, it had to be labeled with a number sent to it and photographed before the telephone call. The person on the other end of the line also checks the number.

As soon as the 15 minute development time for the test strips is over, the test cassette has to be photographed again – in such a way that the result and the number written down are clearly visible. Shortly after sending the “proof photo” in the app, the test certificate arrived in the e-mail inbox.

The bottom line is that this version of the video test also worked well, even though the implementation in the app was unhealthy in some places.

A niche

Compared to the speed in a test center – provided everything goes smoothly there – testing with video recording takes longer at home. But there is also no need to go to the test center.

The two providers do not give exact figures on how many people have already used their offer. Scharpenberg speaks of tens of thousands, “Freetogo” of a five-digit number of users.

For comparison: In June and August 2021 alone, according to figures from the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, more than 46 million citizen tests were billed nationwide. So the video tests are a niche. To be fair, it has to be noted that they were usually always paid for and did not count as free citizen tests.

If the citizens’ tests are no longer paid for by the state for most people and more and more test centers close, the offer could become more attractive for some people. “I do believe that demand could then increase,” says Scharpenberg.

Who are the video tests for?

According to him, so far, many users have done the tests while traveling, for example. Abroad, this is certainly more convenient than looking for a test site. At “covidtestonline” you can have the certificates sent to you in different languages.

The co-founder and head of the “freetogo” app, Matthias Weingärtner, sees the benefits of video tests for vacationers as well, but also elsewhere: for example, if someone doesn’t have a test center nearby or is afraid of an increased risk of infection Shy going to the test center.

Different opinions on validity

The Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) is critical of these digital test options. Thorough monitoring of the testing via video is only possible to a limited extent, according to the request. According to the ministry, the certificates of the providers of video-monitored tests do not qualify as official certificates.

In ministry language it sounds like this: “If the testing on which the test certificate is based has been carried out by means of video-monitored self-testing, no valid test certificate within the meaning of the Protection Exemption Ordinance can be created.” This also applies, it is said, if the video surveillance was carried out by a service provider according to Paragraph 6, Paragraph 1 of the Test Ordinance.

The providers see it differently. The company Coteon, which is behind “covidtestonline”, relies on two of its own legal opinions by the law firm Fieldfisher and the law firm KPMG Law. These come to the conclusion that the evidence corresponds to the exemption regulation.

The acceptance of the certificates

The certificate meets European requirements and is equivalent to a certificate from the test center, writes “covidtestonline” on its website. The online process was checked by Tüv Rheinland and confirmed as functional and safe.

“freetogo” boss Weingärtner writes on the question of where the certificate is accepted everywhere: “Basically, our certificate is recognized throughout Europe where a rapid antigen test is accepted. We recommend our customers to add the result to the Corona warning app import and prove it about it. “

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Coteon Managing Director Scharpenberg points to cooperation with companies that fully recognize the certificate, including Lufthansa and the ferry company Stena Lines.

In summary: the ministry says no, the providers say yes. In the end, the question is how exactly the certificate is viewed in the cinema or restaurant. It is important that the self-test was carried out correctly so that the result is as reliable as possible – and video monitoring should ensure that.