Will coronavirus testing set us free? Opinions clash in the Knesset

Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto clashes with Hadassah CEO Zev Rotstein.

A medical technologist tests a respiratory panel at Northwell Health Labs, where the same test will be used on the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, after being authorized to begin semi-automated testing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Lake Success, New York, U.S (photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
A medical technologist tests a respiratory panel at Northwell Health Labs, where the same test will be used on the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, after being authorized to begin semi-automated testing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Lake Success, New York, U.S
(photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
"Even if we can do a million tests a day, it will not help free the economy,” said Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto Sunday during a meeting of the Knesset’s coronavirus task force. “We should not be betting on testing taking us out of this crisis.”
The debate was particularly intense on Sunday, two days after the Health Ministry announced that it was forced to narrow the criteria for being tested because of a shortage of reagents, the chemical compound used to extract the virus's DNA from the samples and thus identify if it exists in the body. 
Now, the guidelines require that one can only be tested if he or she is suffering from a temperature above 38°C, a cough, difficulty breathing or any other respiratory symptoms that correspond to the virus – and has also spent time abroad or in the Palestinian territories in the 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms.
In addition, for asymptomatic cases, people are only eligible to be tested if they have stayed in the vicinity of a confirmed coronavirus patient for over 15 minutes or have returned from a country with a high rate of COVID-19 infections.
In general, recent data shows that the Health Ministry has not been meeting the target of 30,000 tests per day that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed to in recent weeks. Last Thursday, 7,294 tests were performed, even less than the day prior when 7,833 people were screened, according to the ministry. 
"There is an arms race around the world trying to secure the materials for these test kits," Grotto told the Knesset. He said that the Health Ministry had ordered reagents, but "the orders fell because the source state or supplier decided that they would not supply us. 

"There is nothing to do but rely on ourselves," he continued. "We are currently in the final stages of the experiment to make sure it works. We will know in the next few hours."
He also referred to a delay in receiving additional test kits from a Chinese company, explaining that the Health Ministry was ready to sign but had heard about some challenges with Chinese testing sets and wanted to confirm their quality.
"It's not because we didn't have the money or the will to sign," Grotto said, "but because we wanted to validate the purchase. We will sign today."
  
He explained that the current PCR tests that are being conducted in the country may give false-negative results some of the time, meaning people with an active COVID-19 infection still test negative for the disease. Moreover, he said that someone who tests negative one day could test positive the next. 
The result of his statement was a heated confrontation with the head of Hadassah Medical Center, Dr. Zev Rotstein, who said he believes that the Health Ministry’s testing strategy is not correct. 

"To date, 103,000 tests have been performed in Israel," Grotto said. "The rate of tests in Israel, contrary to popular belief, is among the highest in the world. At the moment, we can conduct around 10,000 tests per day. In the last two or three days, we have performed around 7,000 tests per day."
Rotstein rebutted that “the Health Ministry’s data is inaccurate – to say the least.”
"Ah, Rothstein, if you continue in this way, believe me it will not work well,” Grotto replied. “I think our data is accurate, I have 100 times more accurate data than your own."
But the confrontation between the two resumed shortly thereafter.
Rotstein explained that the Health Ministry should be checking medical staff so that those who are infected can be isolated and prevented from infecting others. 
“As for the nursing homes,” Rotstein said, “my recommendation was to check the entire nursing and medical staff.”
He added that “Regarding the claim that PCR testing is ineffective, because if today it is negative, tomorrow it could be positive - this is deception.”
Grotto then addressed the committee members: "I suggest you decide if you want me or want Rotstein, who doesn't even have a specialty in public health.”