Top Health Ministry official casts doubt on accuracy of virus test on hot mic
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Top Health Ministry official casts doubt on accuracy of virus test on hot mic

While talking to head of public health services prior to press conference, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov says PCR tests only 70% accurate

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)
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)

PCR testing for the coronavirus in Israel is only 70 percent accurate, and not 90 percent as previously believed, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov suggested on Tuesday as he spoke with the ministry’s head of public health services, Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, on a hot mic before a remote press briefing.

“Have you seen the figures that PCR is only 70 percent accurate,” Bar Siman-Tov asked Sadetsky.

“No,” she replied, “but I have seen the reasons that could reduce the validity of testing.”

Channel 13 said it had been told by senior health officials that accuracy rates for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing were as low as 50% and therefore the Chinese had used CT scans to confirm diagnosis.

Bar Simon-Tov was apparently referring to a Chinese study comparing the two testing methods.

Prof. Sigal Sadetsky head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

PCR testing is an antigen test that can confirm the presence of the coronavirus infection which causes the COVID-19 disease. The test is carried out by using a nasal swab to collect mucus, saliva and viral RNA, which confirms infection, if present. While the test is considered accurate, if swabs are not collected properly, for example by insufficiently trained staff, this can significantly affect the number of false negatives.

Israel’s intelligence service Mossad has conducted several operations to bring hundreds of thousands of PCR tests to Israel, as well as swabs needed to conduct them and chemical reagents required to carry out the lab tests.

Another type of testing for coronavirus is antibody serology testing, which is carried out via a blood test and can confirm past infection.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior health officials had said Israel would reach some 10,000 PCR antigen tests by this week and 30,000 by April 10, only 7,000 tests were conducted Tuesday.

A Channel 12 report Wednesday afternoon quoted a senior employee at one of the labs that deciphers the tests as saying that Israel is way off from reaching those targets due to a lack of chemical reagents and the Health Ministry’s alleged mismanagement of the process.

“The Health Ministry’s conduct vis-à-vis the labs is a catastrophe,” he told Channel 12. “What is preventing an increase in the pace of testing is a shortage of ‘kits’ — test tubes with chemical reagents that break up the proteins in the swabs and allow us to interpret them.”

Another issue, he added, was the hours that labs are working. There are currently 27 labs in Israel capable of PCR testing and Health Ministry and Finance Ministry officials are due to meet later Wednesday to enable the labs to work 24/7.

The ministry came under fire over the weekend after media reports said some tests were incorrect. Health officials later attributed the mishap to human error, and said the handful of faulty results were caught before being sent back to patients.

Israel has seen 23 deaths from the virus and over 5,500 cases.

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