Israel's Elite Commando Unit Enlisted to Aid in Coronavirus Testing

Failure to carry out effective and far-reaching tests for the illness turns out to be biggest challenge in the government management of the crisis, as Sayeret Matkal asked to weigh in

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A "test and drive" testing center in Israel's north, March 30, 2020.
A "test and drive" testing center in Israel's north, March 30, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A month into Israel's coronavirus outbreak, the ongoing flaws in the testing procedure has emerged as the government's central failure in its management of the crisis. On Tuesday, for the second time in the past five days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations that concluded in an agreement to up the pace of testing to 30,000 tests a day by the end of next week.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to insert some order into the tumultuous testing practices, the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the Israel Defense Forces has been enlisted to help the Health Ministry manage the testing process.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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In the joint IDF-Mossad-Defense Ministry situation room that’s been set up at Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, there is a team working to streamline the testing process. Despite the decisions and repeated commitments to increase the pace of testing, the rate remains virutally the same. In recent days between 5,000 to 6,000 tests were conducted daily, even though dozens of labs have been co-opted to the mission.

A number of weak spots were identified in the testing procedures. The lengthy process includes purchasing testing kits, operating clinics and testing centers, summoning people to be tested, transporting samples, double-testing them in the lab, analyzing the results and managing a database of the findings.

Israel's data, as the virus spreads and the testing increases, if only in a limited fashion, is very disorganized. This leaves the cabinet with lots of questions about the information meant to inform their decisions on how best to fight the virus.

This is where the Sayeret Matkal, along with parts of the Intelligence Branch, including the technological unit, are expected to help. A number of senior officers in the elite unit, including its commander, are already cooperating with the Health Ministry to make the process faster and more reliable. According to people involved in the activities, the cooperation between the IDF and the Health Ministry is harmonious and smooth.

The consultations Netanyahu held Tuesday included senior Health Ministry officials and several outside experts, including the CEO of Hadassah Hospital, Prof. Ze’ev Rothstein, as well as Prof. Gabi Barabash and Prof. Shuki Shemer.

The consultation was held online, because Netanyahu is still in quarantine after an aide of his tested positive for the coronavirus. During the discussion all the experts expressed support for quickly increasing the pace of testing; the Health Ministry, which was reluctant at first, is gradually coming around. By the end of the week, the plan is to reach 10,000 tests a day.

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