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Probe after people who never took Covid tests were sent SMS with ‘their results’

The health ministry has launched an investigation into allegations of bogus Covid-19 test results, after a number of people who never had the test were nevertheless alerted by clinical laboratories of the ‘result’.

Speaking at the House watchdog committee on Thursday, Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said he had instructed his permanent secretary to investigate the claims, documented in a draft report by the audit office.

Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides said four people reported to his office that they received an SMS alerting them of the ‘result’ of their Covid test, which they had never actually taken. Two of these four individuals later filed a written complaint to the audit office.

The ‘results’ in question happened to be negative.

The health ministry has since confirmed that the two individuals receiving the bogus alerts were included in the test results data reported by the lab to the government.

“This shakes confidence in the system,” Michaelides told MPs.

For his part, Ioannou said that to date, 154,000 lab tests have been carried out, with a cumulative 991 (prior to Thursday’s results) positive coronavirus cases.

Christina Yiannaki, the health ministry’s permanent secretary, said the government has yet to make any payments to clinical labs, covering the cost of the Covid tests.

Payments would be made once the ministry combs through the invoices and completes its probe.

The auditor-general’s report covers the period up until when 96,287 tests were carried out, for a total cost of €7,506,933. Of the 12 accredited labs that did the tests, one in particular had performed 69 per cent of the tests, worth €4.81m.

It was suggested in parliament that the bogus test result alerts may be due to a foul-up, as some labs had earlier been given a batch of mobile numbers to call.

In addition to the false SMS alerts, the auditor-general also looked at the Covid test prices and their fluctuations through time.

At the start of the epidemic in Cyprus, the prices cited by private labs ranged from €120 to €170.

The health minister said that, at the time, only one private-sector lab could generate large numbers of tests daily; the Microbiology Laboratory at Nicosia general hospital was not up to speed.

Ioannou said because it was felt that an open tender might lead to a monopoly situation, the ministry set a reference charge of €110 for the Covid test, which was the price used by the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics.

Subsequently, and as more labs were accredited for the test, the price came down. As time passed, the lowest charge recorded for the Covid test was €50.

MPs also discussed another finding by the auditor-general, relating to the government’s procurement of masks.

The audit office flagged the process, noting for example that during an initial invitation for offers, one company had proposed selling for 49 cents per mask. Whereas this price was rejected as being “unreal,” later on the contract was awarded for a price even higher than that, 52 cents per mask.

A second attempt was made to seek offers; this time, the auditor-general said, two companies “emerged out of nowhere” vying for the contract.

These two companies had never previously participated in public tenders for the provision of medical products.

Ultimately, a contract for the masks was awarded for €4.7m, at 52 cents a mask.

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