Ultimate goal: Home tests for virus, as for pregnancy or HIV

In call with Euro heads on virus, Netanyahu proposes ‘safe air hubs’ at airports

Speaking with Italian PM, 6 other heads of government, Netanyahu urges international cooperation, suggests ‘safe air hubs’ at selected airports in Europe be constantly disinfected

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

PM Netanyahu speaking to European leaders during a videoconference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, March 9, 2020 (Koby Gideon/GPO)
PM Netanyahu speaking to European leaders during a videoconference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, March 9, 2020 (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday initiated a videoconference with seven European leaders, in an effort to promote better regional coordination in the fight against the spreading coronavirus.

“I welcome this opportunity to have this videoconference, because I think that we can help our countries, and help each other, by sharing information and certain activities, because I know that time is of the essence — both your time and our countries’ time,” Netanyahu told the leaders, who represented countries severely affected by the outbreak as well as those where so far no cases of the disease, known as COVID-19, have been reported.

At the beginning of his remarks, Netanyahu made three suggestions. For one, he proposed Europe join the Israeli-US effort to improve ways to test people for the deadly virus.

On Sunday, Netanyahu had spoken with US Vice President Mike Pence, and the two men two agreed to hold followup talks between the Israeli and American teams dealing with the crisis.

“The talks will be held in order to advance technological and scientific cooperation on the issue of the coronavirus and to discuss joint ways of dealing with the challenges posed by the virus,” The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“The ultimate goal is to have home tests, just like you do for pregnancy or for HIV, that people can test themselves,” Netanyahu told the European leaders in the videoconference, which was held in a small room at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

“When that happens we can separate more effectively and more efficiently healthy people from sick people. This is good for health and it’s very good for our economy, because we’re going to run into serious problems of mass quarantines, and you can’t run economies that way. So we’re pooling our research people with their research people.”

The prime minister urged the European leaders — Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades — to contribute to the effort if they think they have the scientific and technological abilities to do so.

Italy, with over 7,300 people infected and more than 350 deaths, is the European country hit the hardest by COVID-19. By contrast, not a single case is known in Cyprus.

“It has to be a worldwide effort. It’s not who gets there first, but how do we all get there first,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister also suggested creating “safe air hubs” in Europe to mitigate the damage caused by disrupted chains due to constrictions on air travel.

“We can designate airports for us, for all of us. And we say, this is a clean airport. We apply consistent efforts to keep it clean. We scrub it, we disinfect it, all the time — around the clock. And we also test the people who work there all the time,” Netanyahu suggested.

“This can also be a meeting ground for leaders, for technologists, where they could actually meet and not just be reliant on the internet, as we’re doing right now,” he added.

PM Netanyahu speaking to European leaders during a videoconference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, March 9, 2020 (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Finally, he proposed that every participating government appoint “points of contact” to continue the dialogue and exchange “best practices,” since every country is having different experiences in fighting the coronavirus.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov and Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem also participated in the videoconference.

After Netanyahu’s remarks, the European leaders addressed the virtual gathering, but that part of the conference was closed to the press.

On Sunday evening, during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu said he would also conduct a conference call “with the leaders of countries in the Middle East.”

On Monday, his aides refused to provide additional information about that conference call.

Virtually all countries in the region have been affected by the disease, mostly Iran with more than 230 people have been reported to have died.

Also on Monday, Litzman said in an interview that it was likely there would be an announcement later in the day that travelers from all over the world will be required to enter home quarantine after entering Israel.

A wider set of protocols was a “necessary step,” he told Army Radio.

“We are considering it and I expect it to happen,” Litzman said. “We think it’s important. We will look at other considerations, including economic, and we will make a decision.”

American tourists wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus tour at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on February 27, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The virus hit a milestone Friday, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide. It has killed nearly 3,400 people.

Israel has already required returning Israelis from several countries to self-quarantine, and barred foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries. Some 80,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, and large events such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled.

Israelis have also been advised against all non-vital international travel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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