ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

COVID-19 Testing Scam Hits Indonesian Airport

Those involved have gained as much as $125,000 from washing and reusing nasal test swabs.

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COVID-19 Testing Scam Hits Indonesian Airport

Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, Indonesia.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Walad Hidayat

Several employees from Indonesia’s state-owned pharmaceutical company Kimia Farma have been arrested for allegedly washing and reselling COVID-19 nasal swab test kits. According to the police, an estimated 9,000 passengers at the Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, North Sumatra, might have been tested with such kits, which were washed and reused.

The use of nasal swab testing kits has become routine for many nations throughout the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same is the procedure at the Kualanamu airport, where passengers had to test negative in the naval swab test to board the flight, with an option for customers to be tested at the airport itself, using antigen rapid test kits supplied by Kimia Farma.

After a few complaints from passengers regarding false positive test results from the airport testing site, police sent in an undercover team to investigate, reported Detik, a local news outlet. After being swabbed and receiving a positive result, the undercover police notified the others, who then approached the testing area to do an inspection. During the inspection, it was revealed that the nasal testing kit had been recycled. According to the BBC, the police said that such a scandal had been going on at Kualanamu airport since December.

This incident comes to light a few days after give Kimia Farma employees were arrested for breaking health and consumer laws by conducting similar activities: washing nasal swab testing kits and repackaging them, and selling them. The motive for their action was simple financial gain, given that each naval swab test costs 200,000 rupiah ($14), which the employees got to collect by reusing the kits. Media reports estimate the profit from such a scandal to be around 1.6 billion rupiah ($124,800). Since that incident, Kimia Farma has been firing any staff found to be involved in illegal activities and has vowed to tighten its internal measures.

The South China Morning Post reports that two lawyers were planning on suing Kimia Farma in a collective lawsuit for each passenger who had been affected by this scandal. Both the lawyers are planning to sue the company for 1 billion rupiah ($69,000) per passenger. The two lawyers, Ranto Sibarani and Kamal Pane were frequent flyers between Jakarta and Medan for Court hearings at Jakarta’s Supreme Court. They said that they might have taken more than ten tests at the airport testing site and that they had suspected some irregularities.

Speaking to South China Morning Post, Ranto Sibarani said, “It was an awful experience because they did the tests far too deeply and insisted on swabbing my nose several times during a sitting, to the point I complained that the procedure was not being conducted professionally… Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I suspect the reason for having to swab my nose multiple times and do the test so deeply was because they were using rewashed, second-hand swabs, which made the procedure more difficult.” He added, “I feel that I am the victim of serious fraud and that I was violated through my nose.”

Medan’s police chief, RZ Panca Putra Simanjuntak, had told reporters that the scandal might have affected over 9,000 passengers, as there were at least 100 to 200 passengers being tested at the airport testing site every day. The percentage of people who were tested with repackaged and recycled kits remains unknown.

An airport official stated that the operations of the Kualanamu airport are functioning normally again since the scandal broke. The Kimia Farma testing site on the airport has been closed and sealed by the police, and the airport has begun working with another company.

Kamal Pane noted that Kimia Farma “should immediately stop all rapid testing across the country, and its offices and test centers should be audited by independent teams to check for any further signs of fraud.”

Speaking on the scandal, the spokesperson for the COVID-19 Handling Task Force, Wiku Adisasmito, said, that his task force was “very supportive of the police’s efforts to track down the people involved in this case.” Hopefully, such scandals are put to a rapid halt, and people cease toying with others’ lives in the pursuit of easy profit.