The Spanish government is facing growing criticism for its response to the coronavirus pandemic after the disastrous purchase of more than half a million testing kits from China.
Following weeks of severe shortages of health equipment required to cope with the virus, the government led by Pedro Sánchez triumphantly announced the purchase of 640,000 Chinese-made testing kits, which would help the country speed up diagnosis of the disease.
But excitement turned into despair when it emerged that 58,000 of the kits, which had already arrived in the country, were unreliable, offering only a 30 percent detection rate. The government pulled the entire batch, leading to a host of questions about the process the government followed when it purchased them.
On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in Madrid tweeted that the manufacturer of the tests, a company called Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology, was not yet licensed by the Chinese agency for medical products.
In a statement Thursday, the Spanish government said it would return the kits to the Chinese manufacturer and stressed that they had not been bought directly from China but from a company in Spain.
Health Minister Salvador Illa said the kits had a CE marking — a certification that indicates conformity with health, safety and environmental protection standards.
“The first tests on the rapid testing kits were carried out simultaneously by a hospital in Madrid and by the Carlos III Health Institute, and as soon as their low sensitivity was discovered, they were withdrawn,” the ministry of health said in a statement. “The supplier has been contacted and replacement tests will be provided.”
Appearing in front of the parliament’s health committee, Health Minister Salvador Illa said the kits had a CE marking — a certification that indicates conformity with health, safety and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area.
But it was too late to stop the damage to the government’s image.
Pablo Casado, leader of the Popular Party, the biggest opposition party, lambasted Sánchez for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, which as of Friday morning had claimed the lives of almost 5,000 people in Spain.
In what was interpreted as an indirect call for Illa to be fired, Casado described the testing kits fiasco as “authentic irresponsibility that must have consequences.”
Casado urged the government to show “effectiveness” when buying health products and testing kits. “Every delay, lie or mistake costs lives,” he said.
Popular Party chairman Teodoro García Egea criticized the government for demanding “loyalty” from the opposition and regional governments during the crisis while making “mistake after mistake.”
The PP had earlier criticized the government for taking too long to impose strict social distancing measures to fight the virus.
Sánchez is also facing trouble from another angle. A lawyer in Madrid has sued him, saying that the government should have banned mass events such as International Women’s Day marches on March 8 after a March 2 warning about the virus from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to open a case.
Spain is also bracing for a shortage of beds in intensive care units as well as of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that has been given to coronavirus patients. The majority of producers of this drug are based in India, which has recently banned exports to guarantee its own supply.
A senior official within the ministry of foreign affairs insisted Friday that the government’s response has not been slower than other European countries, adding that it was not until March 9 that the World Health Organization recommended canceling all mass events in countries with community transmission of the virus.
The decision to declare a state of alarm and the country’s lockdown were taken when the number of confirmed cases hit 4,000 and the death toll reached 120 — earlier than in countries such as France and the U.K., the official said.
Spain has also requested help from NATO countries through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre to acquire ventilators, testing kits, face masks and other protective gear, and it has already received an offer from the Czech Republic for 10,000 protective suits, the official said.
“This wave is going to hit other places as hard as it has hit us, and only then we will be able to have a comparative perspective of how [those countries] have responded,” the official said. “There is no health system in the world that can prepare in advance for a pandemic of this sort and sustain the necessary capacity over time … This is going to test the best health systems of the world.”