Instead of ramping up, coronavirus testing decreasing due to reagent shortage

Dearth of chemicals means Israel testing fewer than 10,000 people a day, despite goal of 30,000 set by Netanyahu; Health Ministry says solution may have been found

A lab technician carries out a coronavirus test at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A lab technician carries out a coronavirus test at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Health officials are projecting that Israel will not be able to test more than 10,000 people a day for the novel coronavirus in the coming days, far short of the government’s goal, but officials said Sunday an unspecified “solution” may have been found.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered defense officials to acquire enough kits to perform 30,000 tests a day, but according to multiple Hebrew media reports, a shortage of a key reagent means that, instead, the number of people being checked has gone down.

Reagents are substances used for chemical analyses that are required by the tests.

Sources told the Haaretz daily that the nationalization of a German factory producing the compound, as well as the shuttering of a South Korean one, contributed to the local shortage, and that only several days of tests remained available.

A paramedic of Israel’s Magen David Adom national emergency medical service handles a swab to test for coronavirus at a drive-thru testing site in the northern Israeli city of Tamra on March 31, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

On Sunday, however, the Health Ministry released a statement saying, “Over the weekend it appeared that a solution was found to the reagent issue that will allow the test goals to be met.”

The statement added: “The Health Ministry is working constantly, in cooperation with all relevant agencies — the Defense Ministry, the army, the Mossad — to meet the goal of 10,000 tests a day.”

A subsequent statement from the ministry said that Israel could move to produce the reagents locally.

One unnamed senior official told the Ynet news site that “a paucity of tests has left decision makers without vital information” regarding where to impose closures or whom to isolate.

“Israel has become the last to seek this equipment in the world and has found itself in an impossible competition with all of Europe and the United States,” another official told the outlet.

The site reported that on Thursday, only 7,294 people were tested, down from 7,833 the previous day. It cited reports that Health Ministry officials were negotiating with a Chinese firm in order to obtain the supplies needed to ramp up testing.

Still, that number was an increase for a testing system that had been stuck in the 5,000-5,700 range on most days last week, and which has grappled with a range of glitches, from Mossad bringing incomplete test kits to a temporary suspension in the publishing of results because of data errors.

Testing already appears to have slowed, with Magen David Adom’s drive-through testing operations open for less than four hours on Saturday. On Thursday, MDA testing facilities were reportedly closed early due to a shortage of testing material in laboratories.

The Health Ministry on Friday reportedly decided to tighten its criteria for coronavirus tests amid the shortage.

According to the new guidelines, in order to receive a test, a person must (a) have symptoms of COVID-19, and (b) have been with a virus carrier, or returned to Israel from abroad or from the Palestinian territories, in the 14 days before their symptoms appeared.

In other words, displaying symptoms of COVID-19 is no longer enough to qualify for a test for the disease.

The symptoms specified by the Health Ministry include a temperature of over 38°C (100.4°F), a cough, difficulty breathing, or other respiratory symptoms.

A person is considered at risk if they were near a coronavirus carrier for over 15 minutes at a distance of under two meters.

Previously, people only needed to display symptoms and receive approval from medical personnel to qualify for a test.

People arriving in Israel from areas hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic have been entering the country without testing unless they requested a check.

A Magen David Adom worker at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, Tel Aviv, March 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to 46 Sunday morning with the passing of an 84-year-old woman from the Mishan nursing home in Beersheba, the sixth fatality from the assisted living facility, and a 63-year old man said to have had underlying health issues.

The Health Ministry said Sunday that 8,018 people have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus in Israel, an increase of 429 from 24 hours earlier.

There are 127 people in serious condition and 106 on ventilators, which appears not to be an increase over figures from Saturday evening. A total of 477 people have recovered from the virus.

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