Israel to Conduct Clinical Trials for Rapid Coronavirus Tests on Thousands of Indian Patients

New testing methods, if effective, could give results in minutes ■ India has become popular destination for clinical trials due to lax regulations and rampant poverty

Noa Landau
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People line up to consult doctors at a COVID-19 screening facility inside a government hospital in Jammu, India, July 21, 2020.
People line up to consult doctors at a COVID-19 screening facility inside a government hospital in Jammu, India, July 21, 2020.Credit: Channi Anand,AP
Noa Landau

A delegation of Israeli researchers will leave for India in the coming weeks to test a number of new rapid coronavirus testing methods on thousands of the country's COVID-19 patients.

The researchers from the Defense Ministry's authority for developing weapons and technology will carry out the tests in coordination with India's chief scientist. They will be testing four different tests and processes to quickly identify the coronavirus within a patient's body. Some may be able to deliver a result within minutes. The flights will also be carrying ventilators and disinfection equipment.

Defense and foreign ministry figures said that developing testing capabilities is a national goal for Israel and for many other countries, and that this is the most efficient way to cut the chain of infection, avoid elongated quarantines and allow the global economy to reopen.  

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that his entire ministry "has been drafted into the fight against the coronavirus," and hopes that the researchers' efforts will provide a breakthrough in detecting and battling the virus.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said that his ministry has been working to deepen international aid and cooperation on coping with the virus since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. "I see enormous importance on cooperation with India in fighting the coronavirus," he said. 

"This operation sends a message of friendship and solidarity, and represents an opportunity for unique scientific and technological cooperation that can help Israel, India and the entire world cope with the pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it," Ashkenazi added.   

India has become a convenient destination for clinical trials, due to its low costs, lax regulations, use of the English language and widespread poverty. This makes it easier for pharmaceutical companies to recruit participants and perform clinical trials that would sometimes be complicated or impossible to conduct in Western states, due to cost or ethical concerns.    

The foreign and defense ministries said the team has all the necessary permits to carry out human clinical trials, but added that they did not know if the participants would be compensated. Ministry officials said the choice to carry out the testing in India rather than Israel was based on India's "large and diverse" population.

When asked whether the human rights situation in India allows for appropriate clinical trials on humans, a senior Foreign Ministry official replied, "There are also claims that Israel violates human rights. So what?"  

Criticism of the plan

The Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement that it has been warning for years about a lack of lsraeli legislation governing human experiments and what it described as "the Health Ministry's attempts to loosen regulations to attract drug companies to Israel to carry out clinical trials." This latest development prompts concern that to get around Israeli regulations that do exist, Israel is resorting to coronavirus diagnostic testing trials in India, the group said.

For their part, the Israeli foreign, defense and health ministries said that "to complete the research and prove the effectiveness of the technology, it has to be tested on a large number of people and confirmed [COVID-19] patients, trials that are difficult to perform in Israel within a short time."

Concern has been raised that this is part of a global trend in which human clinical trials are performed in poor countries and in the process that medical ethical standards are bypassed. The practice may also raise issues such as how informed consent from those participating in the trials is obtained, who is responsible for treating those who experience side effects, and whether if new coronavirus diagnostic technology is developed, it would be available to all Indians regardless of their socioeconomic status. In the case of India, the country has a huge underprivileged population as well as minority groups that are politically repressed.

It is also not clear precisely what the Israeli Defense Ministry's connection to the clinical trials is and whether the pharmaceutical division of the Israeli Health Ministry, which provides oversight of such trials in Israel, is involved and has given its approval from the standpoint of ethical standards. The fact that the trials are being conducted outside of Israel does not relieve Israeli researchers of their obligation to comply with Israeli ethical standards.

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