Thousands of travellers tested for COVID-19 with used nasal swabs at Indonesian airport

Thousands of travellers may have tested with a recycled nose swab.
Thousands of travellers may have tested with a recycled nose swab. Photo credit: Getty Images

Up to 9000 travellers at an Indonesian airport may have been tested for COVID-19 with a used nasal swab in a scam that resulted in the arrests of several pharmaceutical staff. 

State-owned pharmaceutical company Kimia Farma is now facing a potential lawsuit following the nose swab scam, which saw employees allegedly wash used nose swabs and resell them, according to local news outlet Detik. 

Local authorities say they believe the scam may have been operating since last December at the Kualanamu airport in Medan, North Sumatra. 

Travellers are required to return a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a flight, with the airport providing the option of having a rapid test performed on-site. 

According to Detik, the airport was supplied with antigen rapid test kits from Kimia Farma.

After receiving reports of travellers returning false-positive test results, police sent an undercover officer to get a test at the airport. 

As he was swabbed, officers raided the test site - which is when they discovered a used test kit had been recycled. 

Five Kimia Farma employees, including the airport testing manager, have now been arrested. They're accused of breaking health and consumer laws. 

Local media believe the profit from reusing swabs, estimated to be at around 1.8 billion rupiahs (NZ$173,295), may have been used to finance a luxury home for one of the suspects. 

According to the South China Morning Post, two lawyers who frequently travel through the airport are planning to sue Kimia Farma.

Ranto Sibarani said he would have taken more than 10 tests at the airport and suspected something was off from the beginning. 

"It was an awful experience because they did the tests far too deeply and insisted on swabbing my nose several times during a sitting, to the point I complained that the procedure was not being conducted professionally.

"Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I suspect the reason for having to swab my nose multiple times and do the test so deeply was because they were using rewashed, second-hand swabs which made the procedure more difficult," he told the South China Morning Post.

"I feel that I am the victim of serious fraud and that I was violated through my nose."

Sibarani and Kamal Pane plan to claim damages of $1 billion rupiahs (NZ $96,564) per affected traveller, as well as launching a collection of victim statements for a collective civil lawsuit.