First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
A Daily Maverick investigation can reveal that unscrupulous bus company agents operating out of Park Station in the Johannesburg CBD are selling fake Covid-19 test results to passengers travelling to neighbouring countries.
In a matter of minutes, Daily Maverick was able to secure two fake Covid-19 test results from two bus companies for a total of R700.
Each test bore the name and logo of a reputable private pathology laboratory, used technical medical jargon to describe the result and appeared to be legitimate.
Park Station is Johannesburg’s central railway station and, according to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), is the second-biggest passenger railway station in Africa. It serves as a “hub for cross-border buses that link South Africa with the SADC region”. Prasa says some 200,000 people move through the station every day.
Travellers arriving in South Africa are required to present a negative Covid-19 test certificate or result at a port of entry or face being turned back. While South African port authorities do not ask for a negative test for travellers leaving the country, most countries require travellers to present these when arriving at their destinations. Some countries also require travellers to present a negative test when transiting through them.
This makes for a potentially lucrative black market for the sale of fake Covid-19 test results.
Results for authentic tests, which include a biological sample being taken and laboratory tests being performed, can be available within a day and cost between R200 and R800, depending on what tests are performed.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are considered the “gold standard” in Covid detection and involve biological samples being swabbed from the back of the throat or nasal passage. Results from these tests take 24 hours at least to be available.
At Park Station, agents of at least two bus companies sold a Daily Maverick reporter PCR tests. In neither incident were samples taken from the reporter and the results were available in under half an hour.
At Luqmaan Logistics, a transport company that operates an intercity and intercountry transit, our reporter was able to get a fake certificate in 25 minutes.
A man who identified himself as Bongani and who said he worked for the company, asked our reporter for his details and requested payment of R400. This, he said, was a “good price as a few months ago the same service cost R800”.
When asked if a biological sample was needed, Bongani responded: “No, you don’t need that. You can find a place to sit and wait while we process the result.”
Twenty-five minutes later, Bongani returned and handed over what seemed like an authentic negative Covid test result bearing the reporter’s profile details and the name, logo, stamp and contact details of Neuberg Global Laboratories, a pathology company with labs in Sunninghill.
Same practice, different price tags
An hour after receiving the first test result, Daily Maverick was able to buy a second one, this time from Falcon Coaches.
Our reporter approached a man who introduced himself as Nyashi and who said he was a manager at the company, and asked for a Covid test.
Nyashi said this would cost R300, but requested that the reporter use the company’s bus to travel before he would sell the test. When informed that our reporter had private travel plans, he grudgingly agreed to provide the test.
Within 20 minutes of handing over “patient” details and the R300, our reporter received a test result, this time bearing the logo and details of an Ampath laboratory based at Netcare’s Linksfield Hospital. Like Luqmaan Logistics, no samples were collected and no receipts were issued.
Agents at a third company refused to sell a test without our reporter buying a bus ticket from the transit company as well.
Both Ampath and Neuberg Global have distanced themselves from the fake tests.
In a Zoom meeting, Joshua Fisher, CEO of Neuberg Global Laboratories, said the fake result had “nothing to do with us”.
“What these guys do is that they get some documentation of ours, put our logo and then all the details about the lab and test are not ours. They just cut and paste and then issue you with that result.”
Fisher says the company would be launching an immediate investigation and report this to the police “because this is a criminal activity… people are falsifying our results and documents”.
“This is just like identity theft where someone would get a version of your ID and doctor it and present it as though it is theirs. And people are buying these results on the black market,” he said.
“It is a fraudulent report and they are putting people’s lives at risk,” Fisher said.
Fathima Dedaat, chief pathologist at the company, pointed out inconsistencies in the bought Covid test result.
“The signature in the fake Covid result is different from ours and while our logo is on the left-hand corner, theirs is in the middle and bigger… Next to our logo is the doctor’s name and practice number but it is not present in the fake result. Ours also has an address and contact details, but it is not on their own.”
The most glaring mistake on the fake result was the misspelling of SARS-CoV-2 PCR, where it is written as “SARS-Cos-2 PCR”.
“The guys did a poor job in faking the result,” Fisher said.
In a joint statement on 7 April, Netcare Linksfield Hospital and Ampath said they were aware of the emergence of fraudulent Covid-19 result reports and had taken steps to tighten their system so results would be difficult to forge.
The statement said as part of their ongoing digital transformation, Ampath implemented three unique security measures to combat forgeries. These include the ability to verify the specific result with a verification code, a watermark on the actual report and travel reports including a QR code for further verification.
They would also be launching an investigation after preliminary checks on the fake result revealed that the specimen number used on the fake Covid result belongs to another patient in their system. The specimen number relates to a pregnancy-related test conducted through Ampath Laboratories.
“Unscrupulous opportunists can reproduce anything that is printed. Unfortunately, the border authorities will currently only accept paper Covid-19 result reports,” the statement reads.
Ampath and Netcare recommend the use of a patient app that would provide secure and verifiable Covid results.
Luqmaan Logistics has not responded to 20 calls between 10 and 20 April. Three text messages were also ignored. Attempts to identify the company’s directors proved fruitless as there are no records of a company being registered under that name. The company’s web presence is limited to a Google map indicating its location at Park Station.
Makoma Lindiwe Sekhala, a director of Falcon Coaches, told Daily Maverick she was not aware of the sale of Covid-19 tests by the company’s staff. She confirmed that Nyashi, who sold the test to the reporter, is a staff member of the company.
Sekhala’s brother, Prince Sekhala, who manages the transport company, said he too was not aware of the sale of fake test results, saying he has been struggling to reach Nyashi.
“Maybe he is aware that I’m calling because of the test. These guys do their own things there… I’m not even aware, because I lost my wife three months ago.”
Prince said an investigation would be conducted and, if confirmed, those responsible would be suspended.
“I would ask them where they got those things [tests] from, who gave them the authority to be selling it to people and how long it has been happening and where they got the logos and signatures they use.
“Maybe this has been happening for a long time and I did not know. He has to stop because you can’t do that in my office on behalf of Falcon Coaches. It can’t happen that way because when anything is now coming back, it is going to affect our office and maybe the guys can just easily disappear.”
A day after Prince promised to launch an investigation, Nyashi called Daily Maverick’s reporter, asking that his involvement in the sale of fake tests be cleared and “settled as fellow brothers” because he was about to lose his job.
“The thing is, I am not the one who does these papers [Covid results], those guys are the ones who do the papers,” he said, claiming the test results are sold by a group of people who used to work for some transport companies at the station, but lost their jobs due to Covid. “So they are doing anything to make money.
“Now I’m in trouble… I am going to lose my job because of those guys and because you mentioned my name, it looks like I am the one who took your money and I was the one who gave you the paper,” Nyashi said.
Implication of fake Covid test results
Since March 2021, 469 fake Covid test results have been detected at ports of entry across the country where cases of fraudulent tests are more prevalent, said Aneliswa Cele, deputy director for environmental health and port health services at the department of health.
Cele said the department was liaising with law enforcement authorities.
She emphasised that port health officials were trained and supported by National Health Laboratory Service technicians at the ports to detect fake test results.
“Port health officials conduct verifications using information on laboratories listed and accredited for conducting tests, liaise with the lab technicians where necessary and, by virtue of SA being a member state of the World Health Organization, are able to liaise through the coordinating and communication structures to confirm validity of any tests from any laboratories where there is a need to do so,” she said.
“The rest of the unique features that are observed cannot be shared publicly as this is a potential risk to weaken existing controls,” Cele said.
Health Department spokesperson Popo Maja said those identified as using fake Covid test results were denied entry to the country.
He said the department did not have the authority to make arrests but worked with the police to respond to reports of fake Covid tests.
The sale and use of fake negative Covid test results could have a devastating impact on efforts to bring the pandemic under control. Travellers who have not had a test and are Covid-19 positive could transmit the virus to others while travelling as well as when they reach their destinations.
“This is going to be advancing and propagating Covid because people are using false negative results and spreading the organisms,” Fisher said. “We have to deal with it head-on.”
Cele said while the detection of fake Covid results wouldn’t affect the national picture of the pandemic in the country, travelling with fake test results posed a danger in that there was a potential to transmit the disease.
“Additional screening measures become essential, as does travellers adhering to protective measures to minimise the danger,” she said. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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