Coronavirus crisis

Brushing aside doubts, Health Ministry, Netanyahu praise Mossad test kit caper

Officials deny claim that equipment, brought to Israel by the spy agency from an undisclosed country, did not answer the needs of the medical system

A Magen David Adom worker arrives to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19, in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Magen David Adom worker arrives to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19, in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Thursday said that thousands of coronavirus test kits brought to Israel by the Mossad overnight from an undisclosed country were “important” and “necessary,” after a top official in the ministry downplayed their relevance to the efforts against the disease.

In a statement Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov thanked Mossad, as well as all other defense branches helping confront the medical crisis. He said the test kits received Thursday were “important and functional kits which we require for coronavirus tests.” He thanked Mossad chief Yossi Cohen personally for aiding health officials in the matter.

Confirming the Mossad’s involvement in bringing the kits to Israel, the Prime Minister’s Office also dismissed claims that the equipment was not required by the Health Ministry.

“The equipment that arrived in Israel was needed and critical,” the office said.

The comments came after Bar Siman-Tov’s deputy Itamar Grotto told the Ynet news site that the kits did not particularly help with shortages being experienced by medical officials.

“Unfortunately what has arrived at the moment is not exactly what we are missing. Meaning there are various components in the kit and [what we got] is not what we’re missing. Our problem is we’re missing swabs,” he said.

A Magen David Adom worker holds a test tube from a coronavirus test kit in Jerusalem on March 17, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 news reported that the spy agency had brought in some 100,000 kits, though the numbers were not confirmed by officials. The channel said the Mossad was planning to bring in some four million more kits from a number of countries in the coming days.

The Prime Minister’s Office, which oversees the Mossad, refused to comment on any other aspects of the operation — including the exact number of test kits, where they were acquired from and why the spy agency was needed.

According to Channel 13 news, the kits came from two countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel.

In his statement praising the Mossad’s efforts, Bar Siman-Tov said the ministry would maintain its contacts with the agency “to acquire further necessary equipment.”

Magen David Adom worker wears protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus outside the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, which was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 18, 2020.( Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 )

He added that the country was “in a state of war and during wartime you work alongside everyone to win. Israel is using all its means, all its strengths and all its minds to cooperate and face this great challenge we face.”

Israel had struggled in recent days to ramp up the pace of tests, which hovered around 500 to 700 per day before Tuesday and only broke 10,000 this week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the number of daily tests rose to some 2,200, and the government has said its goal is to reach 3,000 in the coming days and potentially 5,000 later on.

Mossad head Yossi Cohen speaks at a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

Channel 12 news also reported that the Mossad was providing the Health Ministry with cyber experts to help write software for the government’s efforts to manage the virus threat, thoguh it did not give further details.

The other arms of Israel’s security establishment have also enlisted in recent days to tackle the virus threat.

Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet is involved in a controversial new mass surveillance program authorized by the cabinet to track the movements of virus carries through their cellphones, to facilitate retroactive quarantining of people they came into contact with.

And the IDF has also been slowly joining the fight, with the Home Front Command increasingly involved in medical assistance efforts while preparing to set up makeshift hospitals and put its logistical capabilities and facilities at the government’s disposal.

The number of confirmed sick Israelis rose to 529 Thursday. Six of those diagnosed so far are in serious condition, while the status of 13 is moderate. The rest are doing well, according to the ministry.

A worker wearing protective clothes disinfects a bus station in Kfar Chabad, on March 18, 2020 (Flash90)

Israel has in recent days dramatically restricted public life in response to the virus threat, with the government announcing a partial lockdown of the economic system and urging the public to stay at home unless absolutely necessary for purposes of work, purchasing necessities or other urgent affairs.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service had been set to open a “drive through” testing station in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, but its opening was delayed. According to Channel 13, the delay was due to a shortage of testing kits and swabs. The center only had enough kits for a single day, but was trying to round up more from hospitals, the channel said.

In the coming days similar locations were set to open in several major cities.

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