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Report claims airport virus testing firm not properly handling samples

Worker at Ben Gurion Airport laboratory tells TV news procedures are not being followed for storing samples; Femi Premium insists it’s operating according to Health Ministry rules

Travelers arriving at the Ben Gurion International Airport, stand in line to get a COVID-19 check upon arrival. July 1, 2021. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
Travelers arriving at the Ben Gurion International Airport, stand in line to get a COVID-19 check upon arrival. July 1, 2021. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

A report Sunday alleged that coronavirus testing at Ben Gurion Airport was falling short of required standards, with samples not kept frozen and expired test tubes being used.

Femi Premium, the company that operates the testing lab, denied the report from Channel 13 news and said all of its procedures were in line with Health Ministry requirements. It said the Health Ministry had extended the permitted life of the test tubes.

The airport, the country’s main international terminus, has been blamed as the source of a resurgence of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Health officials have linked the recent spike in infections in Israel to travelers who brought back new variants of the virus from abroad and did not properly quarantine after arriving.

Israel’s new government has placed an emphasis on tightening procedures at the airport after coming under public criticism for failing to properly prepare the airport for an influx of arrivals. In one instance, authorities waived the testing requirement for some arrivals to ease long lines, allowing thousands to exit the airport without being tested over a several-hour period.

According to Channel 13, Femi Premium, which took over operation of the airport testing site in June, has not been freezing swabs after they are taken as required and have been using test tubes that are beyond the printed expiration date.

The channel cited a lab worker identified only as Eitan who claimed that the company was putting samples into special cases for transport without required icepacks. He alleged the head of the testing site had said the issue was a “known problem.”

Hidden camera footage showed virus tests being loaded into special transport cases that can keep the samples frozen if ice is also loaded into the container. Workers, whose identities were kept hidden, could be heard discussing the issue, with one saying that the rate at which the storage hampers are filled and sent off for processing outstrips the speed at which the lab can provide frozen icepacks.

Eitan, who had previously worked for Magen David Adom, also recalled that he found sterile test tubes in use that were beyond their expiration date.

“I know for certain that in MDA we immediately threw them away,” he said. When he inquired about the matter with his superiors he was told that the Health Ministry had granted the lab an extra three months to use the test tubes.

In response to the report, Femi in a statement it “totally rejects the claims, and they are all the opposite of the truth.”

The statement noted that the test tubes are provided by the Health Ministry itself and that an extension had been granted for the period they can be used.

It showed the station a permit from the Health Ministry allowing it to continue using the test tubes for three months after the expiration date.

Femi said that testers at the airport had been given refresher instructions on procedures by the Health Ministry.

“The samples are done in accordance with the ministry and its team that monitors the tests,” it said.

The statement also noted that the company had industrial freezers for cooling. Femi Premium does not process the swab samples at the airport but sends them to laboratories it does not operate itself.

Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 12, 2021. (Flash90)

Femi has faced criticism in the past over the length of time that it can take for virus test results to be returned, and other administrative issues including the loss of some tests, according to the report.

Health Ministry figures showed 430 new cases were confirmed across the country on Saturday. That came after daily infections topped 1,100 on Friday. An additional 729 cases were identified as of Sunday evening.

There are 6,710 active virus cases in the country, Health Ministry data showed Sunday, while the death toll stood at 6,449. The number of serious cases was 61.

A month ago the daily caseload was in the low dozens.

Some 10 percent of virus cases in recent weeks have been individuals arriving from abroad, according to Health Ministry data.

Health officials are considering immediately requiring all returnees to self-isolate for seven days upon arrival, Channel 12 News reported Sunday. Currently, arrivals from countries not considered to have high rates of infection must isolate for 24 hours or until they receive the results of a negative COVID test.

Additional steps being weighed for travelers are expanding the list of countries to which Israelis are barred from flying and allowing travel only for those who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, the report said.

Some 22,000 travelers departed from Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday, apparently ignoring the prime minister’s plea not to fly amid the resurgence of COVID-19 in Israel and worldwide. Another 37,000 were expected to pass through on Monday, Kan reported, as religious Jews end their traditional three-week mourning period and join the crowds of holiday-seekers.

The crowds at the airport came just two days after restrictions took effect, requiring all passengers to self-isolate for 24 hours upon arrival, and the list of countries to which Israelis are barred from flying was updated with more nations.

Starting Friday, those returning from 15 countries deemed to have high infection rates are required to quarantine for a full seven days with a negative test result, according to the ministry’s updated guidelines. The full quarantine period was recently shortened from the previous 10-14 days. The countries in question are the United Arab Emirates, Seychelles, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tunisia.

Starting next Friday, July 23, the following countries will be added to the list: the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia, Uganda, Myanmar, Fiji, Panama, Cambodia, Kenya, and Liberia.

It is widely expected that the number of Israelis traveling abroad will further increase in August, if the airport is not closed down by then.

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