Israel is unlikely to be able to meet its goal of significantly ramping up coronavirus tests due to a shortage of testing supplies, it emerged over the weekend.
Laboratories performing coronavirus tests have reported a shortage of a reagent necessary to carry them out over the last few days. It is unclear whether the issue will be resolved within the next few days.
The Health Ministry has instructed first responders to reduce the scope of drive-thru testing stations due to the issue.
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Magen David Adom emergency drive-thru stations have been operating for less than four hours a day over the weekend and many suspected coronavirus patients currently in quarantine received text messages saying that their appointment to get tested had been postponed.
Lab officials said they have had to prioritize the incoming tests, diagnosing hospitalized patients first.
Health officials said that the shortage was caused by a halt in exports from two factories, in Germany and Korea. “The supply line from Germany has been closed. We don’t know under which government regulations, but some claim it is a result of the nationalization [of the factory]," a Health Ministry official said. Another source of the reagent, a South Korean factory, also halted production due to a shortage of raw materials.
The laboratories’ supply of the reagent is thought to be enough for only a few more days of tests. Some labs are being pressured to significantly slash testing as thousands of samples have accumulated that cannot be tested. "There are all sorts of alternatives we're looking for now, but it'll take time," said one laboratory source.
The Health Ministry said it is constantly working alongside the Defense Ministry, the military and the Mossad to meet its goal of 10,000 tests per day.
The Ministry added that it seems to have found a solution over the weekend to the shortage of reagents, adding that it is also in contact with other suppliers, which will allow it to carry out an additional 10,000 plus tests per day in the next two weeks or so.
Ester Admon, the head of the Association of Microbiologists, Chemists and Lab Workers, said that laboratories had no choice but to prioritize some patients over others during the past few days, while first performing coronavirus tests on hospitalized patients before testing patients with milder symptoms.
Admon predicts that this is a temporary setback, and she has expressed hope that the labs would pick up the pace soon. “New testing supplies have arrived, which are currently undergoing a validation test.” She added that once the new components are approved, the labs could return to working in their full capacity.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Health Ministry had set the goal of carrying out 30,000 tests a day. Now however, Israel is unlikely to be able to carry out more than 10,000 tests a day, even presuming the shortage is resolved, health professionals told Haaretz.
Israel now has over 8,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the vast majority of them mild.
Last week, Magen David Adom opened new drive-thru testing stations in Arab cities and towns that had been underserved by state testing to provide a more accurate assessment of the infection rate in the community.
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon said he has been lobbying Magen David Adom and the Health Ministry to set up a drive-thru testing station in East Jerusalem so as to better map the spread of the virus in that part of the city. Civil rights groups are also complaining that the National Insurance Institute and Israeli Employment Service forms needed to apply for unemployment payments have not been translated into Arabic, nor have the Health Ministry forms for reporting self-quarantine.
In ultra-Orthodox enclaves, where infection rates are high and testing is hard to come by, residents with symptoms have been told to wait. In the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, a municipal official said he knows of “entire apartment buildings where people with symptoms are waiting to be tested,” adding, “My phone doesn’t stop ringing and people are asking, begging for me to help move up the test.”
The lack of available testing at people’s homes has led to some officials using connections in the Health Ministry to shorten the wait. “I have to make a selection and decide who I help and who I leave to deal with it by themselves. I feel it’s unpleasant already but I have no choice,” the official said.