Israel Buys 30 Million Low-cost Rapid COVID Tests for Students

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Children at a school in Jerusalem, in September.
Children at a school in Jerusalem, in September.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo / AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel has purchased 30 million rapid low-cost coronavirus test kits for home use by parents as part of the government’s “Green Class” school program, even though the kits have not approved for use by Israeli laboratories. 

Shortly before the tender was published, the Health Ministry changed the criteria for home test kits so that they would not need approval from local labs, but rather only labs from other countries.

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The kits were acquired through a snap bidding process issued by the ministry last week that was won by several importers. The antigen kits are made in China and sell for significantly lower prices than others in this market. It was the first time that the government bought kits like these without requiring that they be tested and approved first by local laboratories.

Slated to begin on October 15, the Green Class program is designed to enable students exposed to people infected with the virus from having to go into quarantine. However, to avoid quarantine, students are required to be tested over the course of the week following exposure. To carry out so much testing, the ministry moved quickly to purchase the 29.9 million kits.

The government is buying the kits for between 6 and 8 shekels ($1.86-$2.50), compared with the 12 shekels charged by companies marketing home kits that have been approved by local labs. These companies also submitted bids, but lost out due to their higher prices. The tender noted that kits need some form of approval, but there is no mention of validation by local labs.

Sources at the Health Ministry said the ministry had recently changed its criteria for approving tests so that they need only meet European standards. The change was not made public or mentioned in the tender. One source said officials were not concerned that the lower price would come at the expense of quality, noting that “the kits were extensively and thoroughly vetted in leading European countries, including the test kit that was purchased.”

Another source noted that testing and approval of kits in Israel is slow and expensive, which would have made it impossible to acquire large numbers of them quickly. 

A spokesman for the ministry said, “These kits were approved after extensive validation in European Union countries such as Germany, Britain and others. They received a permit recognized by the laboratory division of the Health Ministry. These antigen kits met further standards that were established as part of the process of granting permits. The ministry purchased these kits after they were approved, in coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Nevertheless, some health care sources expressed surprise at the double standard being applied to the quick tests. 

Throughout the fourth wave of the pandemic, the Health Ministry has been under pressure to allow home test kits for coronavirus. But the ministry insisted on having the kits validated locally, which delayed their use until late in July.

“Other companies that wanted to sell these kits in Israel, even when their reliability had been proven elsewhere, were made to go through a thorough and expensive validation process that took months, including lab and real-world tests,” said one source. “The companies that had done this also made  bids, but it gave them no advantage. The tender was designed so that price was the only consideration.”

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