One woman suspects a Rabat lab of potentially fabricating COVID-19 test results to make patients pay for unnecessary medications and treatments.
Rabat – The Ministry of Health’s decision in August to license select private labs to carry out COVID-19 tests sought to expand Morocco’s testing capacity and meet citizens’ needs. However, the ministry itself has said that not all private labs meet national standards, and some patients are voicing their own concerns.
Majid Badaoui, a Moroccan national living in New York, reached out to Morocco World News to share his daughter’s experience getting tested for COVID-19 at Laboriad, a private lab in Rabat.
Morocco World News attempted to contact Laboriad about the Badaouis’ testimony on multiple occasions between October 2 and November 1 but staff were unavailable for comment.
Majid’s daughter Sherry, who is a dual American and Canadian citizen, went to the private lab in Rabat for a COVID-19 test on September 22.
The 27-year-old had symptoms of the virus earlier that month while visiting Marrakech but began to feel better around September 15. However, she decided to have a COVID-19 test as a precaution, since she would be staying with elderly family members in Rabat.
Sherry told MWN that she noticed a significant lack of health protocol compliance at Laboriad and a complete disregard for social distancing. The employee taking her samples for the PCR and serological tests, however, was “professional and courteous.” He said she would receive her results via email in 48 hours.
The day after her appointment, she received a call from a woman at Laboriad who “aggressively” demanded to know her address. Sherry, who does not live in Morocco, did not have the local address on-hand. She promised to call the woman back once she found it.
Before she found the address, she called the number to ask if they had her test results already.
“I heard more than one girl laughing in the background,” she recalled. “The one I was speaking to responded with ‘oh okay’ and proceeded to hang up on me.”
When she finally found the address, she sent it to the same number via Whatsapp.
“Normally, I would not send an address in such an insecure way but out of fear of the fact that we’re in a global pandemic and I am in a country fairly foreign to me, I did,” she explained. “No response. I called again to see if they would answer and they, again, did not.”
Later that same day, she received a call from a different number. A man named Ismail claimed to have her results.
The caller, Ismail, said he was from the Rabat Delegation of the Ministry of Health and informed Sherry she tested positive for COVID-19, but he had no information on her blood test from the lab. Ismail read her name and passport number back to her.
“I asked why I couldn’t find the number of the ministry he was calling from on the internet, to which he explained he was calling from some sort of back-office number,” Sherry said.
“To me, it seemed more like … a cellphone since he was the only one who ever responded” when she called back to request further information.
Ismail told Sherry a female doctor would call her the next morning and prescribe medication. He added that she should have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG).
“I thought it was odd he never asked for my whereabouts [for contact tracing] or that he didn’t have the results of my blood test to see if I’d previously had it,” she said.
ECG for COVID-19?
Sherry’s father Majid shared with MWN his own suspicions about the call from Ismail.
“The gentleman told my daughter that she should do ‘Takhtetat Al 9kalb,’ which I understood meant an EKG/ECG electrocardiogram,” Majid said. “We believe the ECG has nothing to do with Covid!”
An electrocardiogram test records the electrical activity of one’s heartbeat. Cardiologists use the measurements to determine if the heart is receiving enough oxygen or beating abnormally, according to the Cardiovascular Institute of the South.
Physicians typically conduct ECGs to check the heart’s rhythm, identify underlying causes of chest pain or pressure, determine causes of heart disease systems, identify structural problems, determine the effectiveness of heart medications or a pacemaker, or evaluate other aspects of heart health such as cholesterol and blood pressure.
MWN reached out to Aziz Rhali, a doctor and human rights activist in Morocco, about whether or not electrocardiograms are normal procedures for COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Rhali was firm in his response, stating, “Electrocardiograms have no place in coronavirus tests or in treatment after a positive test. [ECG] has nothing to do with coronavirus, the lab is fabricating this.”
Although COVID-19 patients with preexisting or underlying heart conditions may need ECG testing and other forms of heart monitoring, Sherry does not fit this description.
Fear of breached privacy
Sherry also began receiving “mysterious calls” on September 23, shortly after her first communication with Laboriad on WhatsApp, triggering concerns that the lab may have breached her privacy.
“The calls would be up to 23-24 times a day until I finally changed my number. I blocked the number but he would keep calling me as ‘Unknown.’ The few times I did pick up, he would really be harassing me, asking if I wanted to date, am I dating, etc.,” she said.
“It could be a coincidence, but definitely one that makes you think,” she said. “He also called me ‘Sherina,’ which is a nickname only my Dad calls me. That was really what freaked me out.”
Majid said he called the central Rabat police station to report his suspicion about Laboriad potentially disseminating his daughter’s private information.
His call, however, was redirected to the city’s police headquarters. “A woman at the end of the line told me she is very busy and they weren’t taking complaints over the phone.”
Sherry opted not to personally file a report “because, while I love Morocco, it doesn’t seem like they would get anything done.”
The day after Sherry spoke with Ismail, on September 23, she did not receive a call from a female doctor as promised.
She decided to return to the private lab in Rabat, where an employee told her she tested positive for COVID-19. The employee declined to email Sherry the test results, contrary to the lab’s policy, and referred her to speak with the lab’s head doctor.
Sherry also described how the employee was reluctant to hand over Sherry’s passport before she met with the doctor. “They did not want to hand it over to me until I began to get a little frustrated and told them, that is my government-issued ID from a foreign country, not from here, and you are not the police. Give me my passport.”
She then met with the doctor and explained her ordeal with calls from Laboriad employees and the Rabat Delegation of the Ministry of Health. Sherry told MWN that the doctor brushed the concerns off.
“I asked her about the [Laboriad] number that had called me on WhatsApp. She looked at it, told me she had no idea who it was, but took out her personal phone and input the number. She did not let me know whether she would look into it or that she was even taking it down, she just input it,” Sherry said.
“I got a little irate because, at this point, I was just thinking, you are a doctor representing this lab and you have no idea who in your lab may have called me or what that number is?”
The doctor “did not show any interest nor responsibility or willingness to investigate what happened and if any employee at their laboratory behaved in any non-professional manner and maybe passed on unlawfully private information about my daughter to a nonauthorized third party,” Sherry’s father Majid told MWN.
Sherry also detailed the doctor’s unprofessionalism: A “pompous” attitude, lack of protective gear in the presence of an alleged COVID-19 carrier, smirking, and “snarky comments.”
The lab gave Sherry her test results and sent them by email while she was speaking with the doctor. “But written at the top was ‘Edite a 4:37 p.m.,’ (edited at 4:37 p.m.) the time that I was literally in the office, which seemed suspicious to me. If they were ready yesterday, why would the date and time not be from yesterday?”
On September 26, Sherry went to the Cheikh Zayd Hospital in Rabat with her grandmother, with whom she was staying, for a second test.
Two days later, both Sherry and her grandmother’s PCR results came back negative. Sherry, however, received a positive serological or blood test, indicating she may have had a COVID-19 infection in the past.
Sherry described her doubts about the PCR results. “It made no sense to me that my grandmother, who I had stayed with, tested negative when I had stayed with her a week during which I had apparently tested ‘positive’ at Laboriad. This virus is devastating the world because of its speed in transmission, and I am staying with a 74-year-old lady and I did not infect her?”
Majid also had doubts about the positive result she received from Laboriad. He believes individuals at the Rabat lab are “victimizing” clients “during these trying times of the pandemic” by delivering false COVID-19 results and disseminating private information.
Her father acknowledged that it is possible Sherry did in fact have the SARS-CoV-2 virus on September 22 when she took the test at Laboriad and recovered by the time of the second test four days later.
“But the episode of mysterious calls that ensued” and the head doctor’s nonchalant reaction to Sherry’s ordeal was enough to convince Majid and his daughter of significant unprofessionalism.
“I hope this was all a mishap by someone who just tried to play a game with no harm, but just in case there is a group of bad apples within Laboriad, it would be a good thing to investigate this case to avoid that someone might fall victim for this irresponsible and unprofessional treatment,” Majid stressed.
Majid believes an investigation and audit by the competent authorities can determine whether Laboriad follows the scientific, moral, and ethical procedures established by Morocco’s health ministry in accordance with the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The challenge of private lab testing
Morocco’s attempt to expand COVID-19 testing to private labs has proven challenging. At the end of September, Minister of Health Khalid Ait Taleb said many private labs in the country are not performing reliable and affordable COVID-19 tests.
The minister added that most of the serological tests private entities conduct do not meet the health ministry’s standards, and prices for such tests are far too high.
Ait Taleb’s comments suggested that the Ministry of Health may be reconsidering its decision to license private labs for COVID-19 testing. More than a month later, however, private labs remain open for coronavirus screenings.
Sherry believes the Laboriad case highlights a challenge Morocco is facing with COVID-19 testing.
“I think it is in the best interest of the country and its citizens to not license private labs solely to do these tests,” she said.
Not only are tests at private labs expensive, but corrupt labs may also be empowered “to swindle money out of customers by skewing results to then strong-arm them into paying for possibly unnecessary additional treatments.”
She said that in Morocco, she’s met many people with “a not-so-misguided fear of even getting tested” for COVID-19, given the possibility of being sent to a public hospital, which “previously were reported to be in dismal conditions.”
“With this in mind, when a [private] lab is telling you that you can pay for additional treatments — that may not be necessary — and avoid the hospital, people will fall for these possible scams and pay up,” she continued, referring to her own experience in being asked to have an ECG.
“If it is not some sort of criminal activity at play, it should definitely be a wake-up call at least to pay more attention to the organization and the enforcement of protocols and policies regarding Covid,” she argued.
Sherry called for “more honesty and clarity, more diligence when handling people’s private information, and definitely an increased application of professionalism, especially during this trying time.”
“Don’t be laissez-faire, neglectful, and pompous regarding this virus that is debilitating our 21st-century world.”