Israel Bets on Untried Firm to End Virus Testing Backlog

In cooperation with China’s BGI, MyHeritage says it will conduct 10,000 tests daily, even though it’s never run a lab

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Testing for coronavirus in Jaffa.
Testing for coronavirus in Jaffa. Credit: Moti Milrod

When Israel’s Health Ministry announced last Thursday that the Israeli company MyHeritage would begin operating its coronavirus testing lab in cooperation with China’s BGI, it promised that the facility would initially conduct no fewer than 2,000 tests a day and eventually expand the number to 10,000.

The new lab can only be good news amid delays in getting a large-scale testing system in place, especially now that the number of cases has started to rise again. In recent days, Israel has been performing no more than 16,250 tests a day.

However, MyHeritage isn’t a biotech or medical device company – it’s a startup specializing in enabling people to discover their family trees and conducting DNA tests to help them. It’s been involved in the coronavirus effort from the start, but MyHeritage has no experience in diagnosing viruses or operating a lab, unlike the labs operated by the health maintenance organizations and hospitals.

That has raised questions among health care officials whether the company can manage the complicated task of testing of thousands of people daily reliably. With the number of confirmed cases rising and growing concerns that a second wave of contagion is on the horizon, MyHeritage won’t have time to learn from any early mistakes.

Yaniv Erlich, Heritage’s chief scientist.Credit: Moti Milrod

Yaniv Erlich, Heritage’s chief scientist, apparently first formed a testing partnership with BGI this year entirely by happenstance. In a Facebook post last March, Erlich recounted how in talks the two companies were holding he had asked a colleague at BGI what the Chinese company was doing vis a vis the coronavirus.

The answer was that when the virus was first recognized as a serious threat in the Chinese city of Wuhan two months earlier, BGI had set up a giant testing lab capable of conducting 10,000 tests daily in just five days. Formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute, BGI is a Chinese genome sequencing company, headquartered in Shenzhen.

The BGI executive said his company would be glad to collaborate with MyHeritage in establishing a similar lab in Israel. MyHeritage then formed a nonprofit company as a “contribution to the State of Israel.” CEO Gilad Japhet said MyHeritage was prepared to take big losses.

The two firms signed an agreement with Israel’s Health Ministry March 27. MyHeritage said it would fund the project on condition that the government would commit to paying for enough tests to cover half the projected investment. MyHeritage has begun hiring and received some 6,000 job applications.

Illustration: A lab worker performs a DNA test, New York, September 6, 2018.Credit: ANGELA WEISS / AFP

However, a few days after it gave the green light, the Health Ministry froze the project to the great frustration of MyHeritage. All kinds of explanations for the about­­-face were offered – concerns that the new lab would hire away technicians from existing labs or that the genetic data of Israelis would end up in the hands of the Chinese or a commercial business. Many ministry officials were then opposed to expanding testing. Eventually, under pressure from the Defense Ministry, the contract was revived at the end of April.

If it hadn’t been for the delays, the lab may well have been up and running by now at full capacity, ready to take on the upswing in the number of coronavirus cases. Instead it’s been six weeks and the lab is still not operational.

MyHeritage CEO Gilad Japhet.Credit: Eyal Toueg

In the past, MyHeritage had said it would take a week or two to erect the lab, but it is not clear when it will begin operations. It depends on the results of trial samples the lab is getting in its first week to assess how reliable its results are. If they don’t meet the standard, there will be further delays.

MyHeritage said it’s ready. “The lab is ready to operate and is awaiting approvals. The system is ready, we have recruited and trained enough workers to conducts thousands of tests a day and we’re hiring more to increase capacity going forward,” the company said.

“Coronavirus tests require maximum accuracy and accountability. There is no room for shortcuts and rounding corners. We understand that we are new to the field, we have much to learn and we are approaching the challenge with the humility and sense of national mission,” it said.

Chinese knowhow

The Health Ministry apparently rushed to issue a statement about the MyHeritage contract, even before the trial was completed, because it was under fire for the testing backlog. That is the result of an increase in the number of cases, more onerous testing criteria and the need to test thousands of students after an outbreak in schools.

The MyHeritage lab is operating out of a 3,000-square-meter building that the company rented in Petah Tikva three years ago at a cost of $2 million. The lab is employing Israelis who have been hired by MyHeritage for the project working side by side with Chinese employees of BGI, who are providing the knowhow, equipment and materials.

To avoid the problem of raiding the existing labs of the HMOs and hospitals, where pay and conditions are less attractive than working for a high-tech company, MyHeritage has appended an unusual condition to its job ads: “The job is not appropriate for someone who is today employed directly or indirectly at a Health Ministry lab or any facility where coronavirus testing is being done today or is engaged in any other work connected with the fight against the pandemic.”

MyHeritage is looking for people with a degree in life sciences or medicine but doesn’t require previous experience or certification for lab work (although they are an advantage).

People in the field have expressed doubt that the company will be able to find enough applicants to meet the criteria and, given its lack of experience, that it will be able to conducts as many tests as it is supposed to. The Weizmann Institute’s lab suffered reliability problems even though it was under the aegis of one of the world’s top research universities.

MyHeritage said in response that it had already succeeded in recruiting enough experienced personnel, giving preference to applicants with practical experience in molecular biology and other labs. “We’ve hired excellent people without compromising on quality or experience,” it said in a statement.

“Even the Chinese who are helping us to set up the lab said they had never seen such a quality workforce at any of the other coronavirus labs that it has set up around the world,” MyHeritage said. “In addition, we have recruited people certified by the Health Ministry (including the manager and assistant manager) to meet the requirements of the ministry.”

It noted that not all the jobs that are being filled require previous experience, such as workers who collect samples from the field.

As for the issue of privacy, Japhet, MyHeritage’s CEO, has said in the past that the company won’t be collecting genetic information. Testing will conducted anonymously – the samples will be identified by number and destroyed immediately after the test is completed.

MyHeritage also rejected concerns that have surfaced in the last few days about the quality of BGI’s testing. Israeli HMOs have refused to use BGI equipment, which had been acquired by the government at a cost of 90 million shekels ($26 million).

But MyHeritage said it was using different BGI equipment than what was acquired for the HMOs.

“For instance, the robots MyHeritage has gotten are more advanced than those supplied to the HMO labs. In addition, the MyHeritage lab is using only qPCR equipment made by the Western companies Roche and Thermo Fisher Scientific, not Chinese qPCR gear. So, any comparison between the MyHeritage Lab and the HMOs’ is out of place,” the company said.

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