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Plane with tens of thousands of virus tests takes off from Seoul for Israel

An El Al plane carrying enough chemical reagents to perform tens of thousands of coronavirus tests took off for Israel from South Korea early Wednesday morning, the Defense Ministry said, after a dearth of these materials caused a massive drop in the number of tests performed daily.

Some 30,000 protective suits for medical teams were also flown over in the emergency airlift, the ministry said.

This operation came amid a marked shortage of chemical reagents — substances used for chemical analyses that are required for tests — that were available to medical officials, which dropped the number of checks they could perform to under 2,000 on Tuesday, far below the goals set by the government.

Many medical authorities have pointed to a robust testing campaign as critical to tracking and preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the Defense Ministry, the Israeli Embassy in Seoul was able to organize the effort in under 24 hours.

“The reagents were purchased by the Defense Ministry’s purchasing department for the Health Ministry. In light of the urgency, the Defense Ministry’s unit tasked with international shipping led a rapid operation to bring these chemicals to Israel, before the start of the Passover holiday,” the ministry said.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Israel Katz praised their ministries’ success in bringing these chemical reagents to Israel. The CEO of the El Al airline, which has been hit hard by the crisis, also hailed his company for assisting in the effort.

Though crucial to get testing underway at a faster pace than is currently possible, the tens of thousands of tests would not last more than a few days at the rate of 10,000 to 30,000 tests a day that Israeli officials have called for.

On Tuesday, Israel signed a NIS 90 million ($25 million) deal with Chinese firm BGI to buy equipment that will allow Israel to conduct at least 10,000 coronavirus tests a day, the Health Ministry said.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered defense officials to acquire enough kits to perform 30,000 tests a day. Health Ministry officials previously sought to bring Israel up to 10,000 tests a day.

The new BGI equipment will be installed in six labs over the next few weeks, and will carry out testing alongside Israel’s current testing facilities.

BGI is a global genomics company based in Shenzhen, China, with clients in over 66 countries, according to the firm’s website.

The new tests are PCR tests — polymerase chain reaction tests — which directly detect viral nucleic acids. Some tests detect the body’s antibodies to the virus. The testing kits come with their own supply of reagents.

BGI’s tests have been used widely in China, and are being distributed to over 50 other countries and regions, the firm said. Results from the tests are available three hours after they are administered.

As of Wednesday, there have been 9,404 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel, with a death toll of 71. According to the Health Ministry, 147 patients were in serious condition, while another 199 were in moderate condition. The rest either had light symptoms or had already recovered from the disease.

Almost all of those who have died from the disease in Israel have been elderly and suffered from preexisting conditions, according to hospital officials.

A national lockdown banning intercity travel came into effect Tuesday ahead of the Passover holiday. A full closure will be in effect over the first night of the holiday on Wednesday, to prevent further spread of the virus.