Mossad said to bring in 100,000 virus tests, but usefulness of kits doubted

Spy agency reportedly planning to import some 4 million more in coming days, but senior health official says swabs, not kits, needed

A Magen David Adom worker wears protective clothing as he arrives to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 in the northern Israeli city of Safed, March 17, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)
A Magen David Adom worker wears protective clothing as he arrives to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 in the northern Israeli city of Safed, March 17, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

An operation by Israel’s spy agency Mossad overnight Wednesday reportedly saw some 100,000 coronavirus test kits flown into the country to allow increased scanning for the deadly pathogen.

But a top health official later said the kits did not contain the equipment medical officials were missing.

The Mossad was planning to bring in some four million more kits from a number of countries in the coming days, according to Channel 12 news, which was first to report on the operation Thursday morning.

The Prime Minister’s Office also confirmed the operation to the Israel Hayom daily, while a spokesperson said they were checking the matter when asked by The Times of Israel.

Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov appeared to confirm the report, telling the Kan state broadcaster Thursday that “we need to check if the test kits Mossad brought are valid and usable.”

“We are using all the manpower we have in the country to treat the pandemic outbreak,” he said, referring to multi-agency efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

But his deputy, Itamar Grotto, then told the Ynet news site that the kits did not particularly help with shortages.

“Unfortunately what has arrived at the moment is not exactly what we are missing. Meaning there are various components in the kit and [what we got] is not what we’re missing. Our problem is we’re missing swabs,” he said.

Mossad officials, responding, said: “Mossad brought what it was asked. Mossad will clarify the needs with the Health Ministry. The clandestine channel is open and will continue to be used to bring in what is needed.”

Israel has struggled in recent days to ramp up the pace of tests, which hovered around 500 to 700 per day before Tuesday and only broke 10,000 this week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the number of daily tests rose to some 2,200, and the government has said its goal is to reach 3,000 in the coming days and potentially 5,000 later on.

The Channel 12 report did not cite sources, give any indication as to the source of the kits, or explain why the Israeli spy agency was involved in what would ostensibly be a diplomatic effort.

The network additionally reported that in an unusual move, the agency was providing the Health Ministry with cyber experts to help write software for the government’s efforts to manage the virus threat. Once again details were scant.

The other arms of Israel’s security establishment have also enlisted in recent days to tackle the virus threat.

Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet is involved in a controversial new mass surveillance program authorized by the cabinet to track the movements of virus carries through their cellphones, to facilitate retroactive quarantining of people they came into contact with.

And the IDF has also been slowly joining the fight, with the Home Front Command increasingly involved in medical assistance efforts while preparing to set up makeshift hospitals and put its logistical capabilities and facilities at the government’s disposal.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, visits the Home Front Command in Ramle and speaks to its commander Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, left, on March 18, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The number of confirmed sick Israelis remained at 433 as of 9 a.m. Thursday, the same as the previous evening, though the Health Ministry was expected to issue an updated, higher number later in the morning.

The ministry said its regular morning update was being delayed by an increase in tests and testing facilities that have led to more data to parse through.

Six of those diagnosed so far are in serious condition, while the status of 12 is moderate. The rest are doing well, according to the ministry.

Israel has in recent days dramatically restricted public life in response to the virus threat, with the government announcing a partial lockdown of the economic system and urging the public to stay at home unless absolutely necessary for purposes of work, purchasing necessities or other urgent affairs.

A Magen David Adom ambulance service medic arrives to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 (coronavirus), in Jerusalem on March 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Magen David Adom ambulance service had been set to open a “drive through” testing station in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, but its opening was delayed. According to Channel 13, the delay was due to a shortage of testing kits and swabs. The center only had enough kits for a single day, but was trying to round up more from hospitals, the channel said.

In the coming days similar locations were set to open in several major cities.

Once in service, people with a note from a doctor and a summons will be able to visit the center and get tested without having to leave their cars.

Also Wednesday, Rambam Medical Center and Technion University in Haifa said they have come up with a faster and more efficient way to test people for the novel coronavirus, by pooling samples.

According to the hospital, by testing the samples of 32 or 64 patients at a time, it can quickly rule out who has the virus. Only in cases where the virus is found will the individuals in the pool take tests to determine who is carrying COVID-19.

They said in a statement that the method was able to flag a sample in which there was one carrier out of 64.

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