In slow steps, Ahmed moved in the airport arrival hall, heading towards the places designated for the quarantine unit to measure temperature and conduct a rapid test for antibodies to the Coronavirus, as part of the precautionary measures imposed by the Egyptian authorities on those coming to Egypt.
Ahmed Al-Sharbatli is one of the Egyptians returning from abroad as part of exceptional flights that Cairo allowed for the return of stranded people after the suspension of air traffic and the closure of airports.
With the beginning of last March and after the spread of Coronavirus cases around the world, many countries closed their airports, but the Egyptian authorities found another way to postpone that step, as the Egyptian Minister of Health, Hala Zayed, announced in a press conference that Cairo had contracted to buy 250,000 A rapid test unit will be used at airports for arrivals to Egypt, especially from countries with a heavy spread of the virus.
And after Egypt’s decision to close the airports on March 19, these tests were used on Egyptians returning from abroad.
There are two types of tests for the Coronavirus, the first is the medical swab test, PCR, which is by a swab from the nose or mouth, and it detects if the person is currently infected with the virus, and its results appear within a day or two.
The second is the rapid antibody test, which is conducted through a small sample of blood and reveals whether the person was exposed to the infection in the past, and its result appears within half an hour. The latter is what Egypt bought for use at airports.
Ahmed had been feeling tired and had a constant headache since he was in the plane, so he waited for the results of the rapid test with a bit of anxiety, as his destination would be determined after the airport accordingly, if it came negative, he would go to a compulsory isolation imposed by the authorities starting from April, on all returnees, for a period of two weeks in a hotel after which he can go To his family, but if the result is positive, he will be transferred to the Quarantine Hospital for the PCR test.
The test result was negative, but as soon as the hotel arrived, his condition worsened.
Ahmed says: “I called the quarantine department at the hotel and told them that I feel symptoms like those of Corona, but they told me that there is no need to worry, as all those coming from the airport to the hotel do not carry the virus because the rapid test result was negative.”
Ahmed tried to calm himself but told the person sharing the hotel room to be careful.
After several days, he demanded to be re-examined with the PCR test, and the result was positive, which required another analysis of his roommate and it was found that the virus had been transmitted to him as well, and he was transferred to the hospital for treatment.
BBC Arabic contacted a doctor who worked in the quarantine unit at an Egyptian airport – and we concealed his identity for the sake of his safety, who confirmed that the rapid test for antibodies raised doubts about its accuracy since the beginning of its use.
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The doctor says that the antibody test should not have been used in this way as a wall of defense to prevent the virus from entering the country, as it gave inaccurate results.
“It was not logical for me to examine 300 passengers with the rapid test, and all results are negative even though they are coming from Milan, Italy, which was the epicenter of the Corona epidemic at this time,” the doctor added.
For its part, the Egyptian government has shown its confidence in this rapid test, as in mid-March of last March it published a video showing the examination of the rapid test of ministers before the cabinet meeting.
On the other hand, during a press conference, Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, was warning governments against relying on rapid testing as a tool to detect current infections with the virus, saying that “antibody tests do not test or detect the virus. What they do is that they are.” You reveal your immune response to the virus and it takes days and weeks to build a complete immune response. ”
However, Egypt continued to use the rapid test in the wrong way, as it published a video showing the precautionary measures that it follows with those coming to Egypt at airports, which are temperature detection and rapid antibody testing.
The Egyptian government has not announced any details of that deal, nor the name of the manufacturer or the country of production. So we started looking.
Egypt’s ambassador to Canada, Ahmed Abu Zeid, re-posted the video of the ministers ’examination of the rapid test, in a tweet via his Twitter account, and wrote that the latest rapid tests were imported from Canada, but he did not mention the name of the manufacturer.
But by analyzing the video that the Egyptian government showed for the use of rapid antibody tests at Cairo International Airport, we found a name on the boxes, which is Artron Laboratories.
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Artron is a Canadian company that specializes in diagnostic tests for a variety of diseases. One of its latest products is the rapid antibody test it sold to Egypt.
We found that this test is still under review by the Canadian Health Regulatory Authority, which means that it is not licensed for use in Canada but can be exported.
So far, the test has not been licensed by any other health regulator around the world.
Artron Laboratories told the BBC that it had great confidence in its test used around the world, adding that it could help “identify people who have generated antibodies and an immune reaction to the virus. It helps to know who has been exposed to the virus.”
Artron Laboratories says that this test should be used to detect if you have previously been exposed to the virus, and not to detect if you are now carrying the virus, as Egypt used to do.
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We searched the Canadian International Trade Database, and found that in March, Egypt spent $ 1.6 million on coronavirus medical supplies it imported from Canada, of which more than a million and a half dollars were on rapid test units.
On March 30, the Egyptian Armed Forces released a video showing a military cargo plane carrying medical supplies imported by Egypt to combat the Coronavirus, but it was not mentioned where it was imported.
When we analyzed images of that shipment, there were Canadian and Egyptian flags on the boxes, and using the military aircraft tracking data sites and the sites of amateur aircraft watchers we confirmed that this plane was in Toronto, Canada two days earlier.
With the beginning of last April and the increasing number of Coronavirus infections around the world, and despite the World Health Organization officials’ warnings against using the rapid test to detect the virus, Egypt not only used the antibody test at airports, but began to use it to examine medical staff in hospitals, as it issued instructions stating The necessity of performing these tests before they are discharged from the hospital, and if the result is positive only, then the BCR swab test is performed.
These new instructions angered the medical staff, who demanded that a medical swab be tested when their work shifts ended, and that the virus could spread to them and then to their families.
The BBC spoke by phone with a doctor working in a large hospital outside Cairo, who agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity.
The doctor says, “Me and four of my hospital colleagues felt a high temperature and a cough, and when we went to the exams official and we examined the medical BMR, he refused and insisted on a rapid test and according to the result, the swab test is determined.”
The results of the five doctors were negative, and their request for the medical swab test was rejected. The doctors returned home, but one of them stayed and insisted on the medical swab test, PCR, and its result was positive.
Two days later, the rest of the doctors learned about this, so they went back to the hospital and insisted that they take a PCR test as well, and they all came back positive.
“We were at home with our families during that time. I was at home and in constant communication with my sisters and father,” the doctor adds.
All their family members showed positive results and were taken to hospital for treatment.
As of the end of April, the Egyptian Ministry of Health said it had performed more than 200,000 rapid antibody tests.
However, the Egyptian Doctors Syndicate, which represents health care workers, warned in its letter to the government that these tests are inaccurate and that relying on them helps spread the virus among medical staff, their families and society.
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Zayat, a member of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate Council, told the BBC that the government had ignored the concerns expressed by the medical staff.
He says, “In fact, this is a non-revealing test because it gives too many false results, whether negative or positive, so we cannot rely on it to examine contacts from the medical team.”
He added, “Medical swabs, PCR swabs, and isolation must be performed for a period of about 14 days after the end of work. The aim was to prevent the medical team from being exposed to any kind of injuries and so that the medical team, upon leaving, would not transmit the disease to its family and the surrounding community.”
However, despite these concerns, the Egyptian Ministry of Health insisted on using the antibody test.
According to Egyptian law, all government ministries’ contracts must be registered in the Egyptian public contracting database, but there was no record or reference to the deal between the Ministry of Health and Artron Laboratories.
BBC Arabic obtained photos and videos showing Artron Laboratories test units being used in hospitals across Egypt. On the boxes we found the name of a new company, HVD Life Sciences.
It is a global distributor of medical supplies and diagnostic testers, and was the top gold sponsor of the Egy Health Medical Conference in Egypt in 2019.
On its Facebook page, HD published a post, stating that it imported rapid test units to Egypt for the Ministry of Health.
In the Egyptian public contracting database, we found that HVD Live Sciences had only won two small government contracts in the past, the last of which was in March 2019.
There is no mention of the antibody test deal.
The BBC contacted HDVD Live Sciences but responded that it was committed to confidentiality and therefore could not answer our questions.
In June, while restrictions on air travel were easing, Egypt stopped the use of rapid antibody tests at its airports and eliminated incoming travelers, but it continued to use these tests with medical staff.
Although the Egyptian Medical Syndicate has sent official alerts and letters to the Egyptian government, warning of the misuse of these tests, Artron says that more test units are on the way to Egypt.
Neither the Egyptian Ministry of Health nor the Egyptian Armed Forces responded to questions from the BBC and declined to comment.