COVID-19: nose swab reuse scam busted in Indonesia

Kolkata, India: An estimated 9,000 passengers might have been maliciously given washed-and-reused nose swabs for COVID-19 testing at Medan airport in Indonesia before police busted a scam involved in the heinous crime. 

Local authorities at the Indonesian city of Medan busted several employees of a pharmaceutical company allegedly involved in resuing the COVID-19 swab test kits. 

COVID-19 swab tests have become routine in airports around the world as countries scramble to halt the spread of the virus that has now mutated into several, potentially more deadly and infectious variants. 

Kimia Farma, a state-owned corporation, is now facing a possible lawsuit filed on behalf of the travelers.

The scam, according to police, has been going on at Kualanamu airport in Medan, North Sumatra, since December.

To fly, passengers must provide a negative test, and the airport provides the opportunity to have the swabs done on-site. Kimia Farma provided antigen rapid test kits to the airport authorities.

Muslim-majority Indonesia has imposed travel restrictions to prohibit the usual spike in travel demand after Ramadan by the end of this month. 

Last week, police sent an undercover officer to pose as a passenger in response to passenger reports that they had received false-positive test results, according to local news outlet Detik.

When the officer was being swabbed, other officers swooped in and searched the test site where they reportedly discovered a used test kit that had been recycled.

Five Kimia Farma employees were arrested last week, including the company's Medan boss. By cleaning nasal swab sticks and repackaging them for sale, the suspects are accused of violating health and consumer rules.

Local authorities have gathered reports from 23 witnesses and are investigating whether the scam's profit - estimated to be about 1.8 billion rupiah (£89,700; $124,800) - was used to build a luxury house for one of the suspects, the BBC reported

The quest to undo the damage

Two human rights lawyers - Ranto Sibarani and Kamal Pane - who regularly traveled via the Medan airport where Kimia Farma facilitates the COVID-19 testing to and from capital Jakarta, said they plan to sue the company. 

During that time, Sibarani said he must have taken at least ten tests, and he had a feeling something wasn't right from the start.

“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 said. “I feel that I am the victim of serious fraud and that I was violated through my nose," the lawyer was quoted as saying by South China Morning Post

Sibarani and Pane plan to sue Kimia Farma for 1 billion rupiahs (US$69,000) in damages per affected passenger and are gathering statements from alleged victims of the scheme in preparation for a class-action lawsuit.

The motive for the scheme, according to Simanjuntak, was financial gain, as Kimia Farma charged 200,000 rupiahs (US$14) for each test, a fee that was received by its employees each time a second-hand swab was used.

Since the outbreak started, Indonesia has recorded nearly 1.7 million coronavirus cases and over 45,000 deaths.

“It is a nightmare to know that a company as big as Kimia Farma could allow this to happen, but pharmaceutical companies all over the world have always been about money and nothing else,” Sibarani said.

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