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El Al trials rapid COVID testing for passengers prior to flight

Airline uses quick antigen test that gives results in 15-20 minutes; testing only required of the unvaccinated, mainly children

Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

El Al on Monday launched a pilot program at Ben Gurion Airport of rapid coronavirus testing for unvaccinated passengers before they boarded a flight to New York.

According to the Reuters news agency, 112 of the 280 passengers on that specific flight were required to take a rapid antigen test.

The test, developed by the Sheba Medical Center, is performed via a nasal swab, with results received within 15-20 minutes. All passengers passed the test and were permitted to board.

The majority of those requiring tests were children who are not yet inoculated under Israel’s rapid vaccination rollout. Masks, however, were still mandatory for everyone on board.

Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Leehu Hacohen, El Al’s vice president for operations, told Army Radio that it was hoped the testing could limit the need for some of the social distancing that was slowing down the movement of passengers through the airport, as well as reassuring those on board.

“Today’s flight is, I think, the first in the world where you will know that you have verified that everyone onboard is certainly clean and non-coronavirus contagious,” he said.

El Al CEO Avigal Soreq told Reuters that the airline hoped to trial the rapid testing in New York next week.

The US doesn’t recognize Israel’s green pass signifying vaccination, and Israelis who travel there must still provide a negative virus test and spend time in quarantine.

Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport on March 8, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The El Al trial came a day after Israel eased restrictions on air travel to the country, enabling thousands of citizens to return home and doing away with the requirement to stay in state-run quarantine hotels.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return. Ben Gurion Airport has been shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad. Entrance into the country required special permission by the government, which was granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of each flight by a government-run exceptions committee.

Under the new rules, 1,000 Israelis were be permitted to enter the country every day, with the figure ramping up to 3,000 by the middle of the week.

Special exceptions from the daily quota are being granted to new immigrants who can’t delay their arrival to the country, essential foreign workers, relatives of Israelis who need to visit under extraordinary circumstances and professional athletes.

Instead of the previous requirement for all returnees to quarantine in designated state-run hotels, travelers commit to self-isolate at home. There is also increased police enforcement to make sure that those who return keep to the rules. The punishment for violating the rules is a fine of NIS 5,000 ($1,500).

People are able to enter the country on flights from specific locations, with Kyiv, Toronto, and Hong Kong added to the existing list of New York, Frankfurt, London, and Paris.

Passengers walk in the arrivals hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport on March 8, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A border crossing with Jordan is being opened up to twice a week, and the border with Egypt will be opened once to allow any Israelis there to return. Those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 are able to leave at will to Jordan, although the Taba crossing into Egypt will remain shut.

Channel 13 reported last month that around 40,000 Israelis were considering returning — 25,000 of them to vote in the March 23 elections and a further 15,000 who have submitted requests to the exceptions committee, many of whom are stranded abroad.

The committee has faced accusations of political meddling in its work. It was put under intense public scrutiny in recent days after a Channel 12 report last week suggested that the vast majority of passengers being allowed into the country have been ultra-Orthodox, while many non-Haredi requests were being rejected (though politicians and some in the media called the report into question).

Though Israelis can now enter the country, there remain limited options for travel abroad without quarantining at the destination. Currently, only Georgia recognizes Israel’s so-called green pass, identifying those who have either been vaccinated against the coronavirus or have recovered from COVID-19.

National coronavirus czar Nachman Ash expressed concern over the changes on Sunday morning, and in particular the risk that mutated strains of the virus, which had prompted the closure of the airport, could now find their way into the country.

Ash told Army Radio “there is need for self-control. We don’t have enough enforcement and there is more than a little danger that mutations will enter the country.”

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