Belgian Health Minister admits to series of blunders during Covid-19 pandemic

Belgian Health Minister admits to series of blunders during Covid-19 pandemic
The Cabinet of Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke reveals that up to 400,000 Belgians may have been knowingly tested with potentially unsterilised nasal swabs. Credit: Belga

During the pandemic, the Federal Public Health Service and Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke committed a series of major blunders relating to the supply of Covid-19 materials, The Brussels Times has learned.

On 10 June, Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reported that in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, at least 400,000 Belgians had received Covid-19 tests using “counterfeit” nasal swabs.

The Federal government distributed the nose swabs to hospitals across the country which were found to be “non-compliant.” These swabs offered no guarantees that they were sterile, which could have affected the result of the tests administered.

Vandenbroucke acknowledged that the distribution of these substandard nasal swabs had indeed occurred, but that “risk analyses” had been conducted after the fact.

In a follow-up to HLN’s investigation, The Brussels Times has now learned that this incident is one of many major incidents publicly admitted by the cabinet of the Health Minister. Vandenbroucke responded to a series of allegations in an email viewed by The Brussels Times.

Unsterilised nasal swabs

The aforementioned 400,000 faulty swabs were delivered as part of three separate faulty purchases containing potentially contaminated swabs, occurring between May and September 2020.

170,000 Belscan nasal swabs purchased from May onwards did not contain all the necessary information on their packaging as required by European legislation.

In August, an additional 80,000 iClean nasal swabs were distributed from Belgium’s strategic stock to two testing labs, which were ultimately found to be non-compliant and counterfeit. In the same month, an additional 150,000 nasal swabs made by AnyShape were found to contain production errors.

Despite deficiencies in all 400,000 test swabs, the products were not withdrawn from circulation and continued to be used. Due to a shortage of swabs across Europe, however, the risk of using the substandard swabs was “considered negligible” by the Health Ministry in comparison to not administering any tests at all.

For potentially unsterilised nose swabs, a risk analysis carried out by the government alleged that “the possible consequences of using non-sterile swabs” led to a “negligible risk of generating no or incorrect PCR results.”

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The blunder was made under the rule of Vandenbroucke's predecessor Maggie De Block, he told HLN. Still, Vandenbroucke remained silent on the topic when questioned about the iClean clean purchase in parliament in January 2021.

In parliament, he said that the “non-conformity found (was) sufficient to prohibit the circulation of the swabs.” After these comments, the swabs remained in service with the minister’s full knowledge.

“As already mentioned, during that period there was often a shortage of fully compliant swabs on the European market,” Vandenbroucke's cabinet said. “For the swabs that were not fully compliant, a risk analysis was always made.”

Evidence shows that, despite promises to remove non-conforming swabs, the Ministry deliberately continued to keep them in medical service. "When the risk was considered small compared to the benefits, it was decided to distribute a certain quantity of swabs anyway."

Frozen vaccines and use-by dates

While acknowledging issues with testing swabs, Vandenbroucke kept quiet on several other major health service faux-pas.

For example, the Belgian press alleges that in September 2021, the European Commission accidentally froze AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Vietnam for several hours. The vaccines should have been kept at a temperature between 2°C and 8°C.

“In principle, these vaccines had to be destroyed,” the question for comment reads. Nevertheless, it is alleged that just a few weeks later, all but 70 vaccines were packed into an aircraft by the Belgian government and flown to Vietnam.

During a symbolic ceremony on 9 September, members of the Vietnamese Government received the vaccines and gave thanks for Belgium's support. In turn, the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding worth $3.7 billion (around €3.5 billion).

The Belgian government claims that the regulator had received no complaints about the improper storage of vaccines, but stated that “in the case of poor preservation,” risk analysis would be carried out to determine whether the vaccines could still be sent.

Non-compliant test kits in Belgian hospitals

Belgian hospitals were also repeatedly on the receiving end of the health ministry’s blunders. For example, on 27 May 2020, 1,000 Yocon brand Covid-19 test kits were shipped to hospitals in East Flanders, which were later also proven to be non-compliant.

Again, these were not returned to the stockpile and instead, continued in service at a hospital during a critical period of the pandemic. Vandenbroucke’s office claims, again, that there were concerns over the quality of sterilisation of the swabs in the kits, but that “this did not necessarily mean that their swabs were not sterilised.”

Furthermore, several Belgian hospitals have reported that they are repeatedly sending back medicines, due to them being too near their sell-by date or too large in quantity. Products were then returned and spoiled.

In summer 2021, the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products (FAMHP) forced all returned medicines to be “quarantined” and removed from use.

“If necessary, the FPS (Public Health) consults with the competent authority, the FAMHP, to consider the redistribution of previously quarantined medicines… Let us not forget that these are vital medicines for patients in a coma,” Vandenbroucke’s office affirmed.

Dump and dash

This is not the only time that Belgium's health authorities have been accused of dumping nearly spoiled stock and recirculating nearly expired medicines. The Government has also been accused of attempting to “dump” stock from its strategic stockpile of Covid-19 medicines and equipment in Ukraine.

An investigation in May 2022 revealed that Belgium had sent 280,000 medicines and 140,000 syringes which would have expired shortly after their arrival in Ukraine. 20% of medicines donated and 10% of supplies of Belgium’s €3.4 million support were likely immediately wasted.

Even considering the “risk analysis” carried out by the Government, the new allegations seem to suggest a nonchalant culture regarding the sterilisation and expiration dates of medicines, and a clear eagerness for the Government to quickly dump its large supplies of medicine built up during the pandemic.

So far, Belgium has wasted over €98 million of Covid-19 equipment and will throw away an additional 1.3 million vaccines in July.

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