Ugandan labs issuing fake COVID test results to travelers, UCAA warns

FILE PHOTO: A Kenyan ministry of health medical worker takes a swab from a truck driver during a testing for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Namanga one stop border crossing point between Kenya and Tanzania, in Namanga, Kenya May 12, 2020. COURTESY PHOTO/REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Entebbe, Uganda | URN | Ugandan laboratories will next month start paying a fine of $3,000 USD (about Shs 10.5 million) for each fake COVID-19 test result they will issue to air-bound travelers. Ugandan aviation officials say the vice is on the increase.

The decision was communicated during a meeting between officials from Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA), health ministry, and managers and staff of over 40 laboratories that currently test COVID-19 samples across the country.

The meeting was held on Friday, January 28 at Entebbe International Airport. The new directive will take effect February 1, 2022.

Some of the officials who attended the meeting say it was chaired by Eng. Ayub Sooma, the Director Airports and Aviation Security at UCAA. Other UCAA officials in attendance included Emmanuel Barungi, the General Manager Entebbe International Airport and Kenneth Otim in the public relations department while the ministry of health officials included Dr. Atek Kagirita the deputy incident Commander for Covid-19 and head of the Entebbe Airport testing laboratory.

UCAA officials who spoke to our reporter on condition of anonymity say the figure of 3,000 US Dollars was arrived at last year after UCAA met stakeholders over the rising number of travelers presenting fake test results at Entebbe airport and their destinations.

“We for instance got information from the UAE that between January 20-25th this year, Uganda Airlines carried 45 COVID-19 positive passengers to Dubai, and yet they all had negative COVID-19 test results,” an official said.

The United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates (UAE) last year banned flights from Uganda due to surging COVID-19 cases and also an increasing number of travelers who presented fake negative COVID-19 test results.

The UAE has since re-opened its airspace under stringent restrictions.

Dr. James Eyul, the head of Port Health at Entebbe Airport, says the issue of fake COVID-19 results has persisted since October 2020 when Entebbe Airport resumed commercial flights. “We realized that it is the laboratories and some officials who have access to the results database behind the issuance of fake results. So we must hold those culpable to account,” Eyul adds.

Eyul says that it has become a business for unscrupulous individuals in the laboratories to issue forged results for travelers who dodge tests or want to travel despite having tested positive for COVID-19.

“Some of the laboratories are not even swabbing travelers because some passengers claim their blood samples instead of nasal or throat swab samples were picked at some the laboratories they visited. Such passengers are usually naive about COVID-19 testing and laboratories take advantage of them,” Eyul adds.

Another port health worker says the vice has continued due to lack of supervision by the health ministry.

As a result, port health workers and UCAA staff welcome the move to fine culpable laboratories.

Eng. Sooma confirmed the decision, saying it is time the government punished culpable laboratories.

“Once UCAA gets reports from other airport authorities about fake results and our investigations of a certain laboratory or laboratories, we shall ask those culpable to pay the fine,” he noted.

However, some of the laboratory managers say UCAA is yet to give them details on which accounts to pay the fine. “We have no option but to ensure we are strict on our staff who collect and test these samples and also issue the results because paying over 10.5 million shillings per fake test is expensive,” a representative from Medipal International Hospital noted.

Airlines currently pay 3,000 US Dollars to UCAA for each inadmissible passenger they carry. Inadmissible passengers are namely a terrorist, those who lack a visa or traveling on have expired passports. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) provides for the fines regarding inadmissible passengers.

UCAA now wants laboratories to pay the same amount for each fake or forged COVID-19 test result issued to a traveler.

Meanwhile, the new move was first hinted at by Dr. Kagirita on January 25th during a meeting with airlines.

Airline officials who attended the meeting says Kagirita hinted that laboratories issuing fake COVID-19 test results should pay 3,000 US Dollars or its equivalent per fake result starting next month.

He noted that the health ministry will also allow travelers, airlines and passenger handlers who man the check-in counters at the airport to access a newly created COVID-19 Traveler Verification System (VTS) in a move to curb the number of passengers transiting through the airport with fake results. Currently, only port health workers scrutinize test results presented at the departures section.

Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the spokesperson at the health ministry says he is not aware of the fine but says the ministry will be “rolling a new system (Traveler Verification System) to detect forgeries.” The system will be rolled out on Monday, January 31, 2022.

According to UCCA figures, an average of 1,300 passengers travel daily through Entebbe International Airport. But an average of 5,412 passengers were traveling daily via Entebbe airport before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in Uganda.

Meanwhile, some passengers who missed their flights to Dubai last Friday have welcomed the new directive to fine laboratories, saying they have been victims of fake results.

One passenger, supposed to travel to Dubai on January 28, missed the flight aboard Flydubai after her first test, taken 48 hours to departure time, returned positive at Test and Fly Laboratory. When she undertook the same test at Makerere University, it was negative. When she took the second test at Test and Fly, taken six hours to departure time, it returned positive for the second time.

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She told our reporter that she had spent 550,000 shillings on the three tests. “It is painful to miss a flight because of such test results!”

She has to wait for another seven days to test again. By that time, she will not be subjected to a second test because the UAE revised the travel restrictions saying effective January 29th, passengers will present a negative test result issued 48 hours to departure time and then self-isolate upon arrival in Dubai until they test negative.

Meanwhile, other passengers say they or other travelers pay laboratory workers over Shs 500,000 to dodge tests and over Shs 1 million to get negative results.