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COVID-19 test machines bought from Chinese firm don’t work in Israel – report

Jerusalem said to return machines purchased from BGI for $25 million after HMOs say they can’t use them, presenting obstacle to plans to expand daily tests to 20,000

Illustrativeechnicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, on March 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrativeechnicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, on March 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Coronavirus testing machines acquired by Israel in a NIS 90 million ($25 million) deal with a Chinese firm are unusable in the country for technical reasons and will be returned to China, a report said Saturday evening.

The development means Israel won’t be able to significantly ramp up testing immediately to prevent a new large-scale outbreak.

The Foreign Ministry said in April that it had signed a deal with Chinese company BGI that would see the firm send lab equipment to Israel that would allow for conducting some 12,000 tests per day.

Eventually, the BGI equipment was expected to expand the scope to perform as many as 20,000 tests per day, the ministry said at the time.

However, the Kan public broadcaster cited officials in all of the country’s health maintenance organizations (HMOs) as saying the machines were not being used since they are technically ill-adapted for use in Israel.

“The machine’s technology is more manual, it is more suited for use in China, not for Israel,” the report said, without elaborating.

A worker performs test on mask samples at the Wuhan Zonsen Medical Products Co. Ltd in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, April 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The immediate effect is that as infections see a renewed spike in Israel, the country will likely not be able to significantly increase testing rates to 20,000-30,000, as it had promised.

At the peak of the infection, Israel tested some 13,000-14,000 people per day for the coronavirus, although that number has lately dropped to around 5,000 per day as fewer people have experienced symptoms.

However, with hundreds of new cases have been discovered in the last few days in schools, Israel’s effort to prevent an fresh outbreak via massive testing is likely to be hindered by the news about the Chinese machines.

The tests originally purchased were PCR tests — polymerase chain reaction tests — which directly detect viral nucleic acids. Some tests detect the body’s antibodies to the virus.

BGI’s tests have been used widely in China, and are being distributed to over 50 other countries and regions, the firm said. Results from the tests are available three hours after they are administered.

According to a Channel 12 report in April, Israel’s largest health maintenance organization, Clalit, had refused to work with the firm over concerns BGI and the Chinese government could gain access to sensitive information on its 4.9 million customers, including on their DNA.

Kan said that negotiations were underway for BGI to send different machines, adding that some of them had already arrived in Israel and were being tested.

Magen David Adom medical workers perform coronavirus tests at a drive-through testing site in Jerusalem on May 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite a sharp increase in recent days in coronavirus infection rates focused on education institutions, ministers decided against a sweeping closure of schools during a Saturday night meeting.

Israel had 1,917 active cases as of Saturday night, with a majority under medical care at home and just 116 in hospitals. Of those cases, 36 were in serious condition with 34 requiring mechanical ventilation. In Israel, 284 people have died of the virus since the outbreak reached the country earlier this year.

The surge in new coronavirus cases was largely centered on a Jerusalem school, the Gymnasia Rehavia, where a “super-spreader” student infected some 80 people. All the students and staff are in the process of being tested.

The school and at least 16 others were expected to be shut temporarily as ministers convened on Saturday to discuss potential closures to stem the spread. The ministers decided against a suspension of the education system as a whole, opting to close schools only where infections have been recorded.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that it was too early to tell whether the upward trend in infections would warrant the reimposition of lockdowns.

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