A Chinese company offered Friday to replace thousands of faulty coronavirus test kits after Spanish health authorities - desperate for materials to cope with the world's second highest COVID-19 death toll - complained they did not work as promised.
China has sold face masks and other medical equipment through a series of personal contacts with Spanish authorities, including discussions between chief executives of Chinese tech giant Alibaba and Spain's King Felipe.
But the first shipment of 640,000 test kits was found to have "insufficient sensibility" to reliably identify infected patients, according to Health Minister Salvador Illa, who announced Thursday that 58,000 kits had been returned.
The Chinese company supplying the test kits, Shenzhen Bioeasy Technology, said in a statement quoted by Reuters that the incorrect results may have resulted from a failure to collect samples or use the kits correctly.
The firm said it had not adequately communicated with clients how to use the kits and would resend them "assuring the sensitivity and specificity needed to help Spain fight against COVID-19."
Spanish medical experts, who have examined the 9,000 kits delivered last week, said they have only a 30 percent probability of detecting the virus.
"They are useless," said Victor Jimenez Cid, a senior professor in microbiology at Madrid's Complutense University. For a test to be effective it must have a 70 percent to 80 percent probability of detecting the virus, Cid said.
The failure of Bioeasy's testing kits is a painful setback for Spanish medical authorities, who are struggling to cope with more than 64,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 4,900 deaths, second only to Italy.
It is also hugely embarrassing to China, which is seeking to rehabilitate a national image tarnished by its faulty early response to the virus in Wuhan by offering assistance to other hard-hit countries.
"First they send us the virus, then they sell us the medications to stop it and then defraud us. It's great for China" said a guest in a panel discussion on a broadcast on the Spanish TV channel La Sexta.
The test is performed by dipping a swab with a sample of a patient's saliva in a protein extraction that gives color indications of the virus's presence. The speedy method is essential for emergency examinations by hospitals as well as improvised drive-through facilities that Spanish authorities are setting up to isolate and quickly treat cases of contamination.
Until now, Spanish hospitals have relied on slower molecular laboratory testing, which requires specialized personnel and take four hours to produce a result. Tests like those offered by Bioeasy are supposed to produce a diagnosis in 15 minutes.
Mass testing methods proved essential in South Korea's successful effort against coronavirus and they are recommended by the World Health Organization as an essential way of controlling the pandemic's spread.
The Chinese embassy in Spain tweeted that Shenzen Bioeasy is not licensed to sell the product and is not included on a list of "recommended suppliers," which its ministry of commerce offered the Spanish government.
Spain's health ministry said Bioeasy products have been approved by European Union quality control agencies and that the "specifications of this test, at least of the lot that was received, do not correspond with EU quality certifications."
Officials said the deal with Bioeasy was made through an unidentified intermediary.
Health ministry emergency coordinator Fernando Simon said Spain is trying to import 6 million testing kits from China and other EU countries. He also said that "intense efforts" are underway with Spanish biotechnology firms to produce them.