Israel signs deal with Chinese firm to enable 10,000 virus tests a day

New equipment, worth NIS 90 million, to be installed in labs in next several weeks; Health Ministry vows to step up testing in hard-hit nursing homes

An ultra-Orthodox youth is tested for the coronavirus in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ AP)
An ultra-Orthodox youth is tested for the coronavirus in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ AP)

Israel signed a NIS 90 million ($25 million) deal with Chinese firm BGI to buy equipment that will allow Israel to conduct at least 10,000 coronavirus tests a day, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

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

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. 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 off in recent days, limiting the number of tests Israel can carry out.

Magen David Adom medical team members, wearing protective gear, handle a coronavirus test sample at a drive-through site in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2020. (Flash90)

On Tuesday, the number of tests conducted was under 2,000, according to Channel 12, falling far short of official goals. The Health Ministry did not release official testing numbers.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered defense officials to acquire enough kits to perform 30,000 tests a day. Health Ministry officials previously sought to bring Israel up to 10,000 tests a day.

The Health Ministry on Friday reportedly decided to tighten its criteria for coronavirus tests amid the shortage, and testing sites shortened their hours in recent days.

Earlier Tuesday, the Health Ministry said it decided to expand testing in nursing homes for the elderly. In any such facility with a confirmed coronavirus carrier, all residents and employees will now be tested, the ministry said in a statement.

Homes for the elderly have been a hotspot for the virus in Israel and other countries.

On Friday, a senior official in the Health Ministry admitted to Channel 13 that his office was not equipped to deal with the growing number of outbreaks in nursing homes.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the Defense Ministry and Home Front Command would assist the Health Ministry in handling the crisis at nursing homes.

Israeli Police officers wearing protective clothing in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At least seven people from the Mishan nursing home in Beersheba died of the virus. Relatives of the residents said they were planning to file a lawsuit against the facility’s managers and the Health Ministry for alleged medical malpractice.

The Nofim Tower assisted living center in Jerusalem has also been hard hit by the virus outbreak, with at least four fatalities from the facility.

Also on Tuesday, a plane carrying 1 million surgical masks from China landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The masks were purchased by the Defense Ministry and will be used by Israel Defense Forces soldiers, the Ynet news site reported.

On Tuesday evening, the Health Ministry updated the country’s death toll from the coronavirus to 65, adding five more people, including Israel’s youngest victim — a 37-year-old man — to the morning’s tally.

According to the ministry, 9,248 people were sick with the virus, 242 more than in the morning. Additionally, 149 patients were in serious condition, including 117 on ventilators. Another 189 people were in moderate condition and 770 had recovered — almost 100 more than in the previous tally — with the remaining patients showing mild symptoms.

Almost all of those who have died from the disease in Israel have been elderly and suffered from preexisting conditions, according to hospital officials.

A national lockdown came into effect Tuesday ahead of the Passover holiday. A full closure will be in effect over the first night of the holiday on Wednesday, to prevent further spread of the virus.

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