Several thousand people are now at risk as a result of a PCR lab set up in Maafaru by Indian-British tourism tycoon, Sonu Shivdasani, and ADK Hospital. The government and other parties with vested interests had attempted to cover up the unfolding scandal.
A laboratory where PCR tests could be conducted was opened up in Maafaru International Airport on 13 July 2020. All of the expenses for setting up and equipping the lab had been donated by the founder and CEO of Soneva Resorts, Sonu Shivdasani. The management of the lab had been taken over by ADK Hospital.
After the lab had been opened, the media had emphasized that the lab had been a generous donation from Shivdasani, free-of-charge. The machines and other equipment had also been, as per the media, donated by the tycoon for free.
However, the reality is that the lab is a business venture. The lab is situated in a location surrounded by many resorts. As per public health guidelines, visitors must be tested for COVID-19 prior to departure. As many tourists had left the country through Maafaru, they had been tested by Shivdasani's PCR lab.
The lab had charged USD$130 per test.
Given the rate of tourist arrivals in the Maldives, it is estimated that the lab would have charged roughly MVR 2-3 million a day.
The lab had been equipped with a LightCycler 96 PCR-testing machine; manufactured by Roche Life Science; and a Thermo Fisher Extraction machine. The sum total of both machines is about USD$ 75,000.
A week of testing tourists would be enough for Shivdasani to have covered all costs of the lab.
It is a heinous crime to put people's lives at risk to make a profit. While several thousand people had been tested for COVID-19 at the Maafaru International Airport's lab, there were incidents of several false negatives. An expert who spoke with The Maldives Journal on the condition of anonymity had said that while false negatives were unavoidable with any test, incurring false negatives on several hundred samples was evidence of sheer carelessness on the part of the lab.
Anantara Kihavah Resort was one of many resorts that had sent samples to the Maafaru Airport lab. None of the samples sent to the lab had come back positive. However, after many people in the resort began developing severe symptoms, the resort procured rapid anti-gen test kits from another party. They also sent out samples to another lab. The resort found that many of those had been cleared by the Maafaru Airport lab tested positive for COVID-19.
COVID-19 spread throughout Anantara Resort, and the resort lost USD$ 8 million in the end.
In addition, people who had sent samples directly to ADK's other labs had run into the same issue. COVID-19 has spread throughout OBLU Sangeli, and an employee of the resort told The Maldives Journal, on the condition of anonymity, that they believed that "there were serious problems with the test-results".
"The resorts that had their tests done through one company is in a lot of trouble, now. The lab that the company ran released nothing but negative results. It's plausible that there're some serious problems with the tests".
"We had an employee test positive with a rapid test kit, but he tests negative when a PCR test is done by ADK. I'm sure that there's some problem here", a management-level source from one of the resorts in the region said.
The source said that there were cases of samples that tested negative at ADK test positive at IGMH.
People familiar with the testing procedures adopted by ADK said that they use high-quality machines. However, they said, ADK extracts the virus manually, and doing so can sometimes cause problems in the results.
"When you do PCR testing, you first have to extract the virus from the sample before running the test. You extract the virus manually or with a machine. ADK does it manually. So, if someone has to manually extract a lot of samples, the chances of lab technicians making mistakes are higher", they said.
While there have been several questions raised about the PCR testing done by ADK, the fact that many people being treated at ADK Hospital contracted COVID-19 gave more weight to those questions. While the cases had been identified, hospital staff had come into contact with people infected with the virus. ADK's Managing Director, Ahmed Afal, refused to comment.
Some resort employees have claimed that the test results are being deliberately changed by the lab. Several people on social media have raised the issue of the Maafaru Airport lab and have pointed out that the lab are "making millions ... by risking workers' health".
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) attempted to cover things up when questioned about the Maafaru Airport lab. Speaking to Sun newspaper, the HPA had claimed that the Maafaru Airport lab had been closed because of a change in the lab's management, and since there were a "few things" that needed to be modified before the lab changed hands and that these matters were being handled.
The HPA had claimed that they were unaware of any false negative test results that had been released by the lab.
When asked by Dhiyares, the sister-newspaper to The Maldives Journal, spokesperson for the Health Emergency Operations Centre, Dr Nazla Rafeeq, claimed that an inspection team from the Ministry of Health's Quality Improvement Division has visited the lab. She said that if there was anything that needed improvement, they would point it out. She admitted that they had not received a report from the team at the current time.
Despite Dr Nazla Rafeeq's claims, several reliable sources have informed The Maldives Journal that the lab had been closed by an order from the HPA after "several issues" pertaining to the lab had come to light.
After these issues of the false negatives had come to light, several resorts had shared their concerns with Shivdasani and ADK Hospital. Some had also complained to the HPA. The HPA has yet to publicly acknowledge that they had taken any measures against the Maafaru Airport lab.
It may be said that ADK Hospital's main laboratory and the Maafaru Airport's lab are responsible for the third wave of COVID-19 infections facing the country today. Several thousand people who had been tested and diagnosed with false negatives at either of the labs would be allowed to freely travel through the country, and visit the Greater Male Region, where each person would have come in contact with hundreds of other people. Even if this had been brought to the attention of the HPA, they had done nothing until things had gone out of hand.
The HPA had ordered the lab to be closed as they had run out of options. Even though the lab had been closed, they did not take further measures against the lab's management. The main factor for the HPA's lenience may have been Shivdasani's political influence.
Sonu Shivdasani maintains close ties with high-ranking members of the ruling MDP. Shivdasani had personally financed several MDP parliamentarians' campaigns during the 2019 Majlis elections, and according to reliable sources, he had also poured millions into President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's presidential campaign in 2018. He maintains a close relationship with Mohamed Nasheed, the Majlis Speaker, who is also President of the MDP.
Sources with first-hand knowledge of Shivdasani's links to the government told Dhiyares that "nobody can play with Sonu".
In addition, ADK, which was responsible for the lab, is a politically-powerful company. The owner of ADK, and the former Majlis representative for Komandoo, Ahmed "ADK" Nashid is a major financial contributor to the MDP. He had served his term in Majlis with the MDP.
It is likely that the vested interests of such politically-influential figures had been the primary reason for the HPA's reluctance to take measures against, and publicly censure, the management of the Maafaru Airport lab.
According to reliable sources, once things with ADK went out of hand, Shivdasani chose to discontinue their partnership and then hand over the management of the lab to a company called Crystal Medical.
Crystal Medical is owned by Mariya Saeed, CEO of Hulhumale Hospital, and older sister to Dr Abdul-Malik, the Under-Secretary of the President's Office.
Dhiyares reached out to Mariya Saeed, and she responded that the lab belonged to ADK, clearly displeased by the question. She denied being linked to the lab in any way. However, Dhiyares newspaper has learned that Mariya Saeed had approached medical supply companies in the Maldives on behalf of the lab.
While Mariya Saeed and Dr. Abdul Malik are in positions that can influence national health policy, contracting their company to manage a lab on a commercial basis would pose a problematic conflict of interest. The HPA had been reluctant to take appropriate measures against the management of the lab because their owners had political clout. It could happen again.
Several incidents have transpired in the past year that the COVID-19 has been with us. Among them has been the time a tourist had been allowed to leave even though they had tested positive. Then had been the time when the authorities had mishandled, and hid information about, the case of the patient who later became the first Maldivian to die of COVID-19. Then had been the case of expatriates who had tested positive going into hiding. When Kuredhoo Resort hid the fact that a tourist had tested positive, the State had neglected to press charges; neither did the HPA take any action.
In fact, the HPA had failed to take strict action with all of the cases mentioned above.
When an influential, powerful person's wrongdoing comes to light, the HPA and the government at large gives them a blind eye. However, the government is swift to punish common citizens for minor infringements such as being outside without a face-mask, or outside curfew hours.
During the current state of public health emergency, the Director General of Public Health is endowed with several legal powers. Yet the full force of these legal powers are enacted on the common citizen. It is as if the HPA are forced to submit to the will and the interests of rich and powerful people and politicos.