HMO won’t work with Chinese firm on virus tests over DNA privacy fears — report

HMO won’t work with Chinese firm on virus tests over DNA privacy fears — report

Clalit health fund reportedly decides it must prevent BGI Group, and by extension the Chinese government, from accessing sensitive information about its 4.9 million patients

A lab test for coronavirus. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
A lab test for coronavirus. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Israel’s largest HMO will not work with Chinese firm BGI Group on coronavirus testing to prevent it from accessing its information database, Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

According to the network, Clalit CEO Johanan Locker made the decision over concerns BGI and the Chinese government could gain access to sensitive information on its 4.9 million customers, including on their DNA.

The decision came after Israel announced last week that it has a NIS 90 million ($25 million) deal with BGI to supply equipment that will allow 10,000 tests a day.

The new equipment will be installed in six labs over the next few weeks, and will carry out testing alongside Israel’s current facilities.

Head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen at a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

According to the report, Mossad head Yossi Cohen has personally intervened to try to resolve the issue and allow the deal to be signed.

BGI is a global genomics company based in Shenzhen, China, with clients in over 66 countries, according to the firm’s website.

The new tests are 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.

BGI has also announced it will be involved in testing facilities for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian health professionals in Beit Sahour handling kits to test for coronavirus on March 31, 2020. (Credit: Wafa)

Results from the tests are available three hours after they are administered.

The testing kits come with a supply of reagents — substances used for chemical analyses that are required for tests — which Israeli laboratories have run short of in recent days, limiting the number of tests Israel can carry out.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that a significant drop this week in the number of coronavirus tests throughout the country was caused in part by a deliberate move to switch to locally produced chemical reagents used in the tests, and said it expected that number to rise considerably in the near future.

Figures released by the ministry on Saturday showed the number of coronavirus PCR test results published per day continued to decline in recent days — with only 5,980 results published Friday, down from a high of almost 10,000 on April 3.

A medical worker wearing protective gear takes a swab from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man for a coronavirus test in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The ministry gave several explanations for this: first, it said, the number of Israelis applying for tests had dropped due to the Passover holiday; second, it noted, the numbers published were of tests analyzed, not of those administered across the country, which were higher; finally, it explained that it had initiated a reduction in order to make a switch to local chemicals.

It said the slowdown was necessary in order to allow labs to adapt machines to the use of the local reagents — a process that required to halt the work of each lab for up to a day.

Many medical authorities have pointed to a robust testing campaign as critical to tracking and preventing the spread of the coronavirus. An efficient testing program is also seen as critical to allowing a slow reduction of social distancing restrictions.

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