Georgia’s Health Ministry has cancelled a contract with local medical importer Solemart to buy 30,000 ‘Dutch-made’ COVID-19 rapid antibody tests which were actually made in China. News of the cancellation emerged just hours after a report by OC Media linking the tests with a scandal in the Netherlands about their origin and accuracy.
Journalists from investigative platform the OCCRP and partners found that tests sold by Dutch biotechnology firm Inzek, despite being marketed as ‘Dutch-made’, were relabelled Chinese tests. They also called into question the claimed accuracy of the tests.
Following the publication of OC Media’s story on Tuesday, Solemart’s founder and director, Zurab Tukvadze, told journalists that the Health Ministry had cancelled the order.
A copy of the notification of cancellation seen by OC Media indicates the contract was cancelled on Monday, a day before the OC Media report. The document was signed by Deputy Minister for Health Giorgi Tsotskolauri and said the reason for the cancellation was the company’s failure to deliver the tests by 8 May.
However, asked about the purchase on Monday evening, the day it was supposedly cancelled, the Health Ministry told OC Media they were not aware of the questions raised about the tests purchased from Solemart.
They did not suggest that the contract was being cancelled.
On Wednesday, Deputy Health Minister Tamar Gabunia defended the Biozek tests, telling journalists that the tests were ‘registered’ in the Netherlands.
‘The test had numerous certificates regarding its quality and it satisfied all requirements’, said Gabunia.
Gabunia added that they had already started using Biozek tests they had previously received. She said that they had tested them on patients who had already tested positive for coronavirus.
Solemart’s alleged connection with officials
There have been suggestions in local media that Solemart owner Zurab Tukvadze was close to former and current officials.
Solemart was founded by Tukvadze, who is the sole owner of the company, in 2011. It specialises in the import, distribution, and installation of medial technologies and equipment including forensic lab supplies.
The company has won 135 government procurements, 68 from the Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau. The company has also been contracted for 44 simplified government procurements.
Vato Gelashvili the founder of non-profit group Stop Corruption told local TV channel Mtavari Arkhi on Tuesday that Tukvadze was a friend of former Infrastructure Minister Davit Shavliashvili and a close relative of Defence Minister and former Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
‘Davit Shavliashvili is my friend, but he had no connection with my business when he was a minister’, Tukvadze told Mtavari Arkhi.
He also insisted that ‘Gharibashvili’s circle [...] has no connection with the Health Ministry’s current leadership’.
‘Less accurate than claimed’
The accuracy of the Biozek tests that were a part of the contract have been questioned by journalists in the Netherlands and other countries.
On 15 April, TBC Bank gifted 5,000 of the tests to the Georgian government. On 24 April, the Health Ministry purchased 30,000 additional tests for ₾930,000 ($290,000) through a simple procurement from Solemart.
The Georgian Government procurement order states that the manufacturer of the tests was Inzek International Trading, the Netherlands.
However, an investigation by journalists from investigative platform the OCCRP and partners including Dutch investigative outlet Investico, discovered that Biozek tests were actually relabelled tests produced by a Chinese firm under the name Alltest.
According to the OCCRP, the Alltest test ‘has been found in some independent trials to be less accurate than claimed.’
‘The UK government reportedly cancelled a multi-million-dollar order for Alltest kits after a review led by Oxford University found that Alltest and another Chinese brand failed to meet basic standards for accuracy’, the report said.
Dutch newspaper Trouw cited two studies which found the clinical trial data insufficient for Inzek to claim ‘Biozek rapid test has a 98% score for IgG and 96% for IgM’ as is written on the company’s website.
Inzek has denied the accusations that the test was less accurate than claimed, stating that ‘Platform Investico and Newspaper Trouw have not done proper research on the product Biozek’. They accused them of relying on the opinions of just two studies; the company said they were pursuing legal action.