Israel rolls out antibody tests, takes samples from foreign workers

Israel rolls out antibody tests, takes samples from foreign workers

Official confirms start of program after weeks of delays; residents of hard-hit Bnei Brak to be tested next, before program expands to rest of the country

Magen David Adom medical workers test Israelis, collecting samples for coronavirus testing in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020.  (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medical workers test Israelis, collecting samples for coronavirus testing in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A top health official said the first coronavirus antibody tests were conducted Sunday on foreign workers, and will soon be rolled out to the rest of the country after weeks of delays.

Prof. Sigal Sadetsky’s comments came after a television report Sunday said many of the kits are set to expire in early July and may go to waste.

The serological tests are seen as a key component in finding out who already had the disease in order to better understand the spread of the disease and shape policy ahead of a possible second outbreak.

Sadetsky, head of the ministry’s public health services, said that a batch of foreign workers underwent the testing on Sunday morning. She said a program to test residents of hard-hit Bnei Brak will soon go ahead, adding that HMO clinics around the country were set to receive the tests to take samples from the general population.

Prof. Sigal Sadetzky speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

The decision to first test foreign workers was not explained by the ministry, nor was the criteria for testing at the clinics.

The Haaretz daily reported that 157 foreign workers were tested on Sunday in Tel Aviv, though the report suggested they were being tested for the virus, rather than antibodies, which can only tell you if you had the virus in the past.

Though outgoing Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov announced the program in early May, the ministry has offered little information about the testing, its scope or when it would begin.

The antibody tests come as the country has seen a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases over the weekend, raising concerns of the virus’s resurgence and a possible second wave.

Israeli police officers remove ultra-Orthodox men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce lockdown, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Flash90)

Antibody tests are different from the nasal swab tests currently used to diagnose active infections. Instead, the tests look for blood proteins called antibodies, which the body produces days or weeks after fighting an infection. Most use a finger-prick of blood on a test strip. An antibody test might show if the subject had COVID-19 in the recent past, which most experts think gives people some protection.

But studies are still underway to determine what antibody level would be needed for immunity. It is also not yet known how long any immunity might last or whether people with antibodies can still spread the virus.

For now, antibody tests are most useful for researchers trying to track how the virus spreads in communities.

On May 5, Bar Siman-Tov told The New York Times that 100,000 serological test kits, obtained from firms in the United States and Italy for almost $40 million, were being prepared for use by health clinics across the country within a couple of weeks.

Channel 12 said the Health Ministry purchased 2 million tests, of which 250,000 are currently languishing in storage and are set to expire by early July.

The project was held up by disagreements among health officials on how to implement the plan, including on the sample size within the population, work guidelines for labs and recruitment protocols of those being tested.

A patient infected with coronavirus is seen during morning prayer in Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, Bnei Brak, Israel, April 27, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The serological pilot program will focus on three groups: families where there was a verified patient, symptom-free families living in a building where a verified patient lives, and a random selection of families and individuals in the city.

At the beginning of April, Bnei Brak was the first city placed under a strict lockdown, with residents only allowed to leave municipal boundaries to work in key industries or to receive medical care.

The government hopes that by conducting such widespread testing, it will be able to determine if Israel is approaching herd immunity or if it is unprepared for a resurgence of the virus.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov is seen at a drive-through site for coronavirus testing samples collection, in Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Bar Siman-Tov had said that if only a small percentage of Israelis were found to have COVID-19 antibodies, that could indicate the country’s health system may become swamped during a future outbreak.

Health experts around the world have regarded antibody tests as an acceptable means of determining lockdown policies and useful for monitoring purposes, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet declared that antibodies necessarily mean their carrier has immunity from reinfection.

Despite many reports of reinfections — including at least two cases in Israel — and the WHO saying last month that there was no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected against a second infection, most experts say those reports are likely due to problems with coronavirus tests, as opposed to a lack of immunity from reinfection.

Some experts around the world, including a senior official at the World Health Organization, have argued that reports of reinfected patients have been false positives, with the tests picking up on dead virus fragments.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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