Jerusalem is preparing to launch a coordinated, nationwide testing campaign to determine the population’s readiness for a possible second wave of COVID-19, the government’s top health official has announced.
In an interview with The New York Times published on Tuesday, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said that 100,000 serological tests, obtained from firms in the United States and Italy for almost $40 million, were being prepared for use by health clinics across the country in the coming weeks.
The tests, which check for antibodies associated with COVID-19, will be administered on a voluntary basis when people go to their local HMOs for blood tests. Those who test positive for the antibodies will be asked to return for follow-up testing.
The government hopes that by conducting such widespread testing, it will be able to determine if Israel is approaching herd immunity or if it is unprepared for a resurgence of the virus. The testing will be conducted across the country but there will be a special focus on cities that have experienced high rates of infection, such as Jerusalem.
“This is the most important mission: Get ready for the next wave, especially a wave during wintertime. Luckily, the COVID-19 caught us post-influenza season. But we can’t assume that there’s not going to be a next wave or that it will be during summertime,” Bar Siman-Tov told The Times.
He said that if only a small percentage of Israelis were found to have COVID-19 antibodies, that could indicate the country’s health system would potentially become swamped during a future outbreak.
Asked if Israelis, many already wary of government tracking, would be reluctant to volunteer for such a check, Bar Siman-Tov replied that he thought “the people would like to know.”
“I mean, I think about myself, and I would like to know. I think that we’ll have more demand than supply,” he said, adding that “Israelis are addicted to health services.”
According to the Haaretz daily, Bar Siman-Tov’s deputy, Itamar Grotto, told the Knesset coronavirus committee this week that “the serological tests cannot be used for individual treatment purposes because we still don’t know whether someone who develops antibodies has recovered from the illness and whether they are no longer contagious.”
“The tests will mainly be used to survey public exposure, whether among children or adults,” he explained. “That will help us track the prevalence of the disease. These tests will enable us to locate those who were infected but didn’t develop symptoms, and in this way, we can get a better picture.”
Some 5,000 tests are planned in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, and thousands more will be conducted in other places that have seen many COVID-19 infections, Haaretz reported.
Health experts around the world have regarded antibody tests as an acceptable means to determine lockdown policies and useful for monitoring purposes, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t yet declared that antibodies necessarily mean their carrier has immunity from reinfection.
Despite many reports of reinfections — including at least two cases in Israel — and the WHO saying last month that there was no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected against a second infection, most experts say those reports are likely due to problems with coronavirus tests.
Some experts around the world, including a senior official at the World Health Organization, have argued that reports of reinfected patients have been false positives, with the tests picking up on dead virus fragments.
Dr. Yair Schindel, a member of the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 task force, told The Times that he believed Israel’s upcoming nationwide testing push could help “to answer the questions the WHO is raising.”
Israeli business news site Calcalist, meanwhile, reported that Bar Siman-Tov is worried about Israel’s preparedness for a second wave and is seeking for Israel’s hospital capacity to be raised by 2,000 additional beds to deal with a potential second wave of infection.
Agencies contributed to this report.