Israel leads world in pandemic testing – but also positivity rate

Situation in Jewish state on par with Iran and much higher than in Saudi Arabia.

A coronavirus test being held in a Drive and Test compound  (photo credit: MDA)
A coronavirus test being held in a Drive and Test compound
(photo credit: MDA)
The Israeli government is facing mounting criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic as the country endures a second lockdown amid one of the highest daily infection rates anywhere on a per capita basis. However, a leading public health expert tells The Media Line that there is at least one area where the Jewish state shines – testing.
“By all measures, Israel stands at the top of the world regarding the number of tests per capita,” says Prof. Amos Adler, director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.
As of Monday, Israel led the world in the rate of coronavirus tests performed, at 372,325 per million residents, according to data compiled by The next highest-ranked country in the Middle East and North Africa region was Qatar, at 270,769 total tests per million inhabitants.
Adler is quick to point out that a robust testing regime by itself is not a remedy for the pandemic unless authorities also take a targeted approach, implementing effective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“What we can see from the Israeli experience is that increasing the number of tests by itself is not enough in reducing the spread of the coronavirus,” Adler observes. “If we don’t bring action to the tests, then it doesn’t matter how many tests you are going to perform. The net result is what we see in Israel, which we all agree is tragic.”
Israel still does not provide coronavirus testing at Ben-Gurion Airport, the transport hub for almost everyone entering or leaving the country, although this will soon change. A month ago, a company was selected to operate a test lab at the airport. It reportedly will be up and running around mid-October.
With the skies still closed to foreign visitors, Adler does not believe that the airport is a significant contributor to the epidemic. The main problem is from community transmission, he says.
Some schools have been problematic, although most of the education system is closed under the current nationwide lockdown.
Haaretz reported recently that 260 yeshiva students had tested positive for coronavirus and that tens of thousands of pupils at ultra-Orthodox boarding schools had been sent home after the Yom Kippur holiday without being tested.
According to a report released by the army’s Military Intelligence branch on Tuesday, the positive test rate in Israel has reached 14.8%. That is nearly on par with Iran’s 15.3% positivity rate as of the most recent update on Monday, according to official data collected by Our World in Data, an online scientific publication run by researchers at the University of Oxford.
In May, the World Health Organization published criteria stating that a positivity rate of 5% or lower indicates that the virus is under control.
Iran is the hardest-hit country in the Middle East and North Africa region, with 453,637 total infections and 25,986 deaths, according to Tuesday’s updated data from the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. Around 83 million people live in the country.
Israel, with a population of 9.3 million, has recorded 234,060 total infections along with 1,516 fatalities, according to the tracker.
Saudi Arabia has confirmed 334,187 cases and 4,739 deaths during the pandemic. In contrast to Israel, it appears to have the disease under control on the basis of its positivity rate, which as of Saturday stood at 1.2%, according to Our World in Data. An estimated 34 million people live in the kingdom.
“I was very glad to see that the Saudi curve [the projected number of new cases over a period of time] is coming down quite rapidly recently, and I think this reflects the positive testing rate,” Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, tells The Media Line.
Bouey explains that a positive testing rate usually indicates that a country had enough testing kits at the start of an outbreak. When the curve goes up, that is when a country can use the rate to assess readiness for testing.
After the initial stage of the epidemic, Bouey continues, the testing rate should be stabilized, and changes in the positivity rate accurately reflect the progress of the epidemic.
“The Saudis right now are not in the initial encounter with the epidemic, but rather it is on the decline,” Bouey says.
“At this stage, the positive testing rate is really a sensitive measure of the new wave of the epidemic, so 1.2% is very good,” she states. “It means that they have sufficient testing capacity and the epidemic is certainly not at the peak. It’s coming down.”
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