The Federal Public Health Service and Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, according to The Brussels Times, made a series of major mistakes in the supply of Covid-19 materials during the pandemic.
On June 10, the Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reported that during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, at least 400,000 Belgians had received Covid-19 tests using “fake” nasal swabs.
The nose swabs were distributed to hospitals across the country that were found to be “non-compliant.” There was no assurance that these swabs were sterile, which could have influenced the test results.
Vandenbroucke admitted that these subpar nasal swabs were distributed, but that “risk analyses” were performed later.
Following up on HLN’s investigation, The Brussels Times has learned that this incident is one of many major incidents publicly admitted to by the Health Minister’s cabinet. In an email obtained by The Brussels Times, Vandenbroucke responded to a series of allegations.
The nasal swabs were not sterile
Around 400,000 faulty swabs were delivered as part of three separate faulty purchases containing potentially contaminated swabs, between May and September 2020.
According to European law, 170,000 Belscan nasal swabs purchased after May lacked all of the required information on the packaging.
In August, 80,000 more iClean nasal swabs from Belgium’s strategic stock were distributed to two testing labs, only to be discovered to be non-compliant and counterfeit. During the same month, AnyShape discovered that an additional 150,000 nasal swabs had manufacturing flaws.
Even though all 400,000 test swabs had flaws, they were not recalled and were still in use. However, due to a swab shortage across Europe, the Health Ministry determined that the risk of using subpar swabs was “negligible” when compared to not administering any tests at all.
A government risk assessment concluded that “the possible consequences of using non-sterile swabs” resulted in a “negligible risk of producing no or incorrect PCR results.”
The HLN was told that the error happened during Vandenbroucke’s predecessor Maggie De Block’s tenure. Nonetheless, when asked about the iClean clean purchase in parliament in January 2021, Vandenbroucke remained silent.
He stated in parliament that “discovery of nonconformity was sufficient to prohibit the circulation of the swabs.” Following these comments, the swabs were still used with the minister’s knowledge.
“As previously stated, there was frequently a shortage of fully compliant swabs on the European market during that period,” Vandenbroucke’s cabinet stated. “A risk analysis was always performed for swabs that were not fully compliant.”
Despite promises to remove non-conforming swabs, evidence suggests that the Ministry did so on purpose. “After weighing the risks and benefits, it was decided that a certain number of swabs would be distributed anyway.”
Expiration dates for frozen vaccines
While admitting problems with testing swabs, Vandenbroucke remained silent on a number of other major healthcare-related issues.
According to Belgian media, the European Commission unintentionally, perhaps accidentally froze AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Vietnam in September 2021, which should rather have been stored at temperatures ranging from 2°C to 8°C.
According to the comment on the question, “in principle, these vaccines had to be destroyed.” Despite this, the Belgian government is said to have packed all but 70 vaccines into a plane and flown them to Vietnam a few weeks later.
On September 9, members of the Vietnamese government received the vaccines and expressed gratitude to Belgium in a symbolic ceremony. In exchange, the two countries agreed to a memorandum of understanding worth $3.7 billion (approximately €3.5 billion).
The Belgian government claims that the regulator received no complaints about improper vaccine storage, but that “in the case of poor preservation,” risk analysis would be performed to determine whether the vaccines could still be sent.
Non-compliant test kits are used in Belgian hospitals.
On numerous occasions, Belgian hospitals have been the victims of health ministry errors. For example, on May 27, 2020, a total of 1,000 Yocon brand Covid-19 test kits were delivered to hospitals in East Flanders, only to be discovered to be non-compliant.
These were not returned to the stockpile but instead were used in a hospital during a critical period of the pandemic. While there were some concerns about the sterility of the swabs included in the kits, Vandenbroucke’s office claims that “this did not necessarily mean that their swabs were not sterile.”
Furthermore, several Belgian hospitals have reported that they are frequently returning medicines that have passed their sell-by date or are in excess of the required quantity. After that, the products were returned and spoiled.
All returned medicines must be “quarantined” and removed from circulation by the summer of 2021, according to the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products (FAMHP).
“If necessary, the FPS (Public Health) consults with the competent authority, the FAMHP, to discuss redistribution of previously quarantined medicines… “Let us not forget that these are life-saving medications for patients in coma,” Vandenbroucke’s office stated.
Distribution of near expired medicines and equipments
Belgian health officials have previously been accused of dumping nearly spoiled stock and redistributing nearly expired medications. Furthermore, the government is accused of attempting to “dump” Covid-19 medicines and equipment from its strategic stockpile in Ukraine.
In May 2022, an investigation revealed that Belgium had sent 280,000 medicines and 140,000 syringes that would have expired soon after arriving in Ukraine. Approximately 20% of donated medicines and 10% of supplies from Belgium’s €3.4 million assistance were most likely wasted immediately.
Even after taking the Government’s “risk analysis” into account, the new allegations appear to indicate a casual attitude toward medicine sterilization and expiration dates, as well as a clear desire for the Government to quickly dump its large supplies of medicine accumulated during the pandemic.