Officials scramble to iron out COVID testing kinks amid questions over antigen kits

Virus czar admits two tests on market not always accurate, Bennett reportedly seeking 50 million kits in 10 days as frustration over new rules mounts

A paramedic collects a swab sample at the Magen David Adom COVID-19 rapid coronavirus testing center in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on January 10, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A paramedic collects a swab sample at the Magen David Adom COVID-19 rapid coronavirus testing center in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on January 10, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Virus czar Prof. Salman Zarka admitted Monday that some rapid antigen tests on the Israeli market are significantly less accurate at detecting the coronavirus, as officials were reportedly set to reconsider the government’s new testing policies, put in place just days earlier.

Israel over the weekend began authorizing at-home antigen test kits, looking to relieve the strain at overcrowded testing centers by restricting PCR testing to only certain at-risk individuals. But voters have complained of confusing rules, out of pocket expenses for the tests and inconstant accuracy from the tests.

On Sunday, Channel 12 News reported that the Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory at Sheba Medical Center, the country’s leading virus testing laboratory, had last week determined that of the six home test antigen kits being sold in Israel, two are ten times less likely to identify an Omicron carrier than the others.

The station identified the two kits as being manufactured by BD and Standard.

The laboratory report has still not been officially released, though it is in the hands of the Health Ministry. But in the wake of the Channel 12 revelation, Zarka admitted at a press briefing that during an initial assessment of the kits, which has still not been completed, “we saw differences between the kits.”

He declined to go into any details saying “we are committed to not present the details in the media but to the [manufacturing] companies” and then hear their response.

Several media reports have shown low accuracy rates for home tests. A Channel 13 reporter who contracted COVID showed viewers that a home test swabbed from his nostril showed him as negative, but a test which used a mouth swab correctly identified the infection.

Similarly, Channel 12 news said of 10 volunteers who took home tests after testing positive on PCR, only five were correctly flagged by the rapid antigen tests, which are known to be less accurate.

Zarka said that neither of the two kits in question are being used at antigen testing stations as the stocks have run out, but according to Channel 12 they are still available for purchase by the public in pharmacies. One of the kits had been used until just days earlier by the Magen David Adom ambulance service at its official testing stations.

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He recommended that those who think they are infected with COVID or are exposed to a known carrier wait two to three days to take a home test rather than doing it immediately in order to increase its accuracy.

But the switch to home tests has also led to a run on the kits, with drugstores running out and many turning to delivery service Wolt. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is reportedly seeking to bring in 50 million tests within 10 days, enough for every citizen five times over, Channel 12 news reported.

However, ministry officials clarified that at best they can obtain 15 million in that time frame. At a meeting Monday to discuss the matter, the Defense Ministry offered to take up the slack and use its resources to obtain the necessary kits, including backchannels and planes flying from various destinations, according to the report.

Zarka told the conference that the government was also planning to add 40 new testing centers, bringing the total nationwide up to 300.

There has been growing public dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the outbreak, with frustration over the frequently changing testing and quarantine rules, and a lack of compensation to businesses.

Nearly two-thirds of the public is displeased, according to a poll by Channel 12. Sixty-three percent of the Israeli public said it views the government’s handling of the omicron crisis as bad, as opposed to 34% who said they thought the crisis was being managed well. That’s up from 54% disapproval in August.

Amid the outcry, the government is reportedly weighing reversing the new policy to limit PCR tests while having the general public take less-accurate antigen tests.

Under the current testing regulations, which were introduced last Friday, those who are over 60 or at high risk are prioritized at PCR testing stations. Those who are under 60 and fully vaccinated are encouraged to conduct a rapid antigen test, either at home or at a testing station, if they are exposed to a confirmed coronavirus carrier. However, unvaccinated people must use antigen testing centers for all their tests, and since the change, test centers have been flooded with people coming to get tested.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Monday he will look into testing issues in an upcoming probe into the government’s management of the current COVID-19 crisis and its decision making during the Omicron and Delta waves of infections.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman Englman during a visit to the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, on January 10, 2022. (Galilee Medical Center)

During a tour of Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Englman said he intends to check whether lessons have been learned from mistakes he found in the management of earlier COVID-19 outbreaks, under the previous government.

He said his office will inspect the decision-making process, the testing apparatus, the vaccination drive and purchases, and other issues.

“For two years the world has been dealing with the coronavirus in its various strains,” Englman said. “We intend to continue to conduct reviews on the conduct of the government and all relevant ministries and public bodies related to dealing with the most severe global crisis of recent decades.”

Daily infections have smashed previous records over the past week as the highly contagious Omicron virus variant raced through the population. On Sunday, over 21,000 new cases were confirmed, and the number of patients in serious condition climbed above 220.

Zarka said an increasing number of medical staff are becoming infected and if the number keeps climbing a lockdown may be necessary.

Elected officials have promised that a lockdown or other strict measures are not under consideration, but health officials have continued to dangle the prospect in warnings to the public, while urging higher vaccination rates and other health precautions.

“Mild restrictions won’t help. What will help is a significant lockdown with a cap of [traveling no more than] 150 meters from home,” Zarka said. “I hope it won’t come to that, but if there will be no choice we will have to put it on the table.”

He added that the peak of the current COVID-19 outbreak is still ahead, expressing hope that it will be over in 3-5 weeks. He urged mask-wearing and social distancing, adding that risk groups should avoid mass events even if vaccinated.

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