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‘Disgraceful’ home COVID test prices might soon come under state control

Tests that wholesale for 6-10 shekels are marketed for up to 35 shekels; MK Ali Salalha initiates bill to place home kits under price control

A Jerusalem father tests his daughter with a home rapid test ahead of her first day of school, August 31, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A Jerusalem father tests his daughter with a home rapid test ahead of her first day of school, August 31, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meretz MK Ali Salalha proposed a law on Wednesday to establish a maximum price for at-home antigen rapid tests for COVID-19, currently the first-line testing recommendation for most Israelis.

Salalha, a member of the Knesset’s health committee, said in a statement that the country is “witnessing a rampage in the price of home tests — this is a disgrace and we can’t tolerate it.”

Home tests cost an average of 6-10 shekels each wholesale (about $2-3), according to Hebrew media reports, but retail consumers face wildly divergent prices, with some stores marketing single tests for 35 shekels (about $11). The current average retail price for a rapid test is 25 shekels ($8), yielding a potential 250%-to-400% markup by retailers.

This creates a situation where Israelis are directed to home tests by the public health establishment, but also not currently protected from potential price gauging, especially as demand for tests is high.

According to a spokesman for Salalha, the proposed law is expected to be discussed at the Ministerial Committee on Legislation “very soon.” If the measure is ultimately passed, the committee will establish a to-be-determined maximum price for antigen rapid tests, seeing them join the ranks of other nationally price-regulated staples, such as bread and milk.

The measure would not be a global first in combating rapid test profiteering. On Saturday, Australia enacted an emergency anti-price gauging measure against rapid tests, which would prevent retailers from reselling the tests at more than 120% of the price they paid for them. On Monday, Spain announced its intention to set rapid test price controls.

MK Ali Salalha attends a Meretz faction meeting at the Knesset, July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledged the financial burden of current test prices, saying that “we are in contact with the pharmacy chains to lower prices of the tests. We intend to open the possibility of sales to organizations or in stores other than pharmacies.”

The same day, the Health Ministry announced a temporary order to enable certain non-pharmacy businesses to also sell home antigen tests. The businesses would have to have a license to sell food and beverages and be able to store the tests separately from food.

New sales avenues are expected to lower test prices via competition, whereas a price control — which has been discussed by lawmakers in some form over the past weeks — would subvert these market forces by placing a price cap. It is unclear what a possible timeline could look like for enacting price control, and whether it would ultimately be more successful than the free market in lowering prices for consumers.

Rapid tests have come under fire for not being as reliable as PCR tests, but they are cheaper and deliver answers in 15 minutes, versus hours to days. An imperfect tool, they have nevertheless been embraced by the Health Ministry as part of Israel’s current self-screening guidance.

Facing a severe testing crunch, the Health Ministry is currently recommending home rapid tests as first-line testing to non-high-risk vaccinated or recovered individuals who come into contact with a confirmed case, or who have a fever.

Discarded COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at a public testing station in Jerusalem, January 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With more than 43,000 new infections posted on Tuesday, and expert estimates that the true number is closer to 100,000, millions of Israelis are expected to come into contact with the virus.

Recent discussions among politicians regarding whether or not to set a price control have also touched on inequality, with the argument being that at-home testing — and the protection it may offer an infected person’s community — will be the prerogative of socioeconomic class. “State non-intervention will lead to a situation where the poorest will not be tested and infected,” said Salalha. “This equation must be true for families with many children.”

To properly home test after exposure poses a non-trivial cost to Israelis. A family of five that tests just once a week would rack up a weekly cost of approximately 125 shekels.

A brief check this week by The Times of Israel yielded a range of per test cost at leading retailers. Israel’s largest pharmacy chain, Super-Pharm, ranges current per-test prices from 34.90 (a single Panbio test) to 7.5 shekels (149.90 shekels for a pack of 20 Orient Gene tests), depending on the brand and bundle.

According to the retailer, prices are always cheaper for bulk packages, but they also tend to sell out faster, leaving only the more expensive, single test options. A visit to multiple Super-Pharm stores in Tel Aviv yielded no tests in stock.

A Super-Pharm pharmacy at Jerusalem’s Hadar Mall, April 30, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Be Pharmacy, owned by supermarket chain Shufersal, priced their single Panbio tests at 22.90 and their four-pack at 77.90, at 19.5 shekels a test.

Panbio tests, which are also sold by Super-Pharm in a pack of four for 79.90, or 20 shekels a test, are priced differently abroad. Panbio tests were found in both Singapore and India for the equivalent of 11 shekels a test, and in Australia for about 31 shekels a test. The test is not approved for sale in the United States.

Super-Pharm declined a request for comment, as did Abbott, the makers of Panbio Rapid Antigen Self-Tests.

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