Amid eyebrow-raising gov’t decisions, an advanced airport COVID lab stands idle

Instead of using new facilities, authorities inexplicably sending passenger samples far off-site for analysis amid delays; ‘It’s the craziest thing,’ says senior doctor

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 30, 2021, heading for COVID-19 tests. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 30, 2021, heading for COVID-19 tests. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

At the very spot through which the highly contagious Delta variant entered Israel, a major tool in the nation’s arsenal of virus defenses is all but decommissioned.

A state-of-the-art NIS 25 million ($7.6 million) coronavirus testing lab is mostly out of work after the Health Ministry ended its role in the country’s biggest health challenge: promptly quarantining COVID-positive people arriving from abroad to stop virus spread — especially if they carry a new variant.

Instead, amid a botched tender process, the ministry has provisionally awarded the contract to a company whose lab facilities are off-site, leading to a slow-down of the process and massive bottlenecks as the lab at the airport itself is wasted.

“It’s the craziest thing,” Dr. Avi Weissman, deputy director of Rambam Medical Center which partnered with company Omega on the largely abandoned lab, told The Times of Israel. “In a country that fought so well against COVID, we are letting all the advances and facilities we have built at the airport go to waste because of decision-making by officials.”

It was at Ben Gurion Airport that the variant now quickly spreading in Israel, and currently accounting for new daily caseloads of around 300, first landed. And Prof. Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry, noted that it was there that the next dangerous variant, which could be more deadly or more vaccine-proof, will almost certainly arrive.

“I’m not worried about the airport because of the Delta variant, which is already here, but I am worried about the airport regarding the entry of the next variant,” he told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

If new arrivals are all tested, and positive cases are sure to be quarantined, Israel has a chance of keeping new variants out. But if testing isn’t efficient, cases are far more likely to get through and spread through the population.

A technician tests a passenger for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Three-quarters of arrivals in Israel are vaccinated Israeli citizens who are generally allowed to move around upon their return quarantine-free, on the assumption that if they are COVID-positive, an airport test will quickly show this, and they will be ordered to isolation. But the longer they wait for results, the longer those who are positive walk around, potentially infecting others.

Results are also important for alerting non-vaccinated Israelis and foreign arrivals if they are COVID carriers. These people are supposed to quarantine upon arrival regardless of test results. However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has acknowledged that “many” fail to isolate. When carriers are definitively told they are positive, far fewer ignore quarantine requirements.

In mid-June, reports started surfacing from people arriving in the country of chaotic experiences at airport testing facilities. On June 18, just before coronavirus cases spiked, the situation was so bad that almost 3,000 vaccinated passengers were told to leave without tests in order to prevent them from crowding and potentially infecting each other.

Coronavirus cases have risen further in recent days, hitting nearly 300 cases daily. Even as these jumps occurred, there have been scenes of huge lines of people waiting for testing and accounts of people who later couldn’t get their hands on test results.

Most passengers assumed it was because there just wasn’t enough capacity at swabbing stands and in labs to cope with the demand. But just a few hundred meters from where they were queuing, there were empty counters for taking samples and a huge testing lab that hardly operates.

Only one of the four machines in the lab run by the Omega company is working due to the lack of demand, with the company relegated to testing outgoing travelers only. Meanwhile, the tests for new arrivals are being taken by another company, Femi Premium, and dispatched to its labs, some of which are far from the airport.

An out-of-use testing machine at the Click2Fly lab at Ben Gurion Airport (courtesy of Click2Fly)

Omega’s Check2Fly service, operated with the help of Rambam Medical Center, was providing tests for outgoing and incoming passengers, swabbing and conducting the lab work on-site, until its initial contract from November came to an end on June 15.

The contract was started under the Airports Authority, which had been responsible for all testing, but ended under the Health Ministry, which took control of the testing for incoming passengers in March.

The Health Ministry decided to invite new bids for arrivals testing, but didn’t complete the process by the time the contract with Omega ran out.

Putting a temporary solution in place until the bids process is completed, it didn’t renew with the Airports Authority’s chosen company, Omega, despite its on-site lab, or make arrangements for another company to utilize the existing lab. Rather, it made a temporary agreement with Femi to provide testing while delivering samples to its labs located up to an hour-and-a-half drive away.

Check2Fly’s lab is left processing tests for outgoing passengers only, a matter far less urgent in terms of Israel’s virus fight — and running at just 20% of its capacity.

Members of its team acknowledge that they didn’t have an automatic right to have their contract renewed, but voice incredulity that the on-site lab wasn’t being used for at least some incoming passengers.

Medical technicians test passengers for the coronavirus at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 8, 2021. (Flash90)

“I’m not saying we should have carried on running it but the changeover could have been more organized,” said Weissman. “They could have used our lab or staff — anything to give a sense of continuity and ensure, before the changing of the guard, that things could run.”

The Health Ministry did not respond to questions regarding the situation at the airport.

Due to a separate development, the Check2Fly lab may soon grind to a complete halt, and stop providing tests even for outgoing passengers. This is because court proceedings are considering the claim of a rival company that the setup — in which a private company is working with a government hospital — does not meet the terms of the original tender that was issued for the service.

Bennett has made it clear that he has been dismayed by various decisions made regarding the virus fight at Ben Gurion before he took office on June 13.

He said on Sunday that the airport has been a “huge weak spot” throughout the pandemic. Conduct at the airport has been a “major failure” he said, adding that this “has led to harm and also the deaths of thousands of Israelis, and we understand this.”

Bennett has appointed an airport COVID commissioner, Roni Numa, and his government will issue a tender for the construction of an enlarged virus testing area at the airport.

At Ben Gurion on Wednesday morning, three days after Bennett’s comments, it was clear that Femi was making new efforts to ramp up capacity, with dozens of newly recruited young workers arriving for their first day. There were some 60 stations, and a team assembled to dispatch the samples to labs.

New staff arrive to bolster Femi’s testing operation at Ben Gurion Airport on June 30, 2021 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

The Times of Israel asked to interview Femi staff, a request passed to senior management, but was escorted off the premises and not reached with any comments.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Now, all eyes are on new Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who took over just two days before the transition from Omega to Femi, and how he manages the complex situation at the airport, and whether he can translate his enthusiasm for change into coherent policy.

“In order to maintain daily routine in Israel, we must closely supervise entry into Israel,” he commented on Sunday, pledging enlarged testing facilities and saying: “In cooperation with all government ministries, we will protect public health in Israel with minimal restrictions on the public.”

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