JERUSALEM — Israel has turned to the Mossad, its top spy agency, to acquire ventilators and other medical supplies from abroad as the country races to handle a coronavirus outbreak that threatens to overwhelm its hospitals, according to government officials and Israeli media reports.
The Mossad has already flown in millions of masks, swabs and viral tests kits in recent days as well as a small number of ventilators.
While Mossad officials have confirmed for local media that the equipment has been secured, the agency has declined to say where it is coming from, raising speculation that agents could be shopping in Arab countries or other nations that lack diplomatic relations with Israel.
One unidentified Mossad official described a chaotic international marketplace with governments from around the world scrambling for the same shortlist of suddenly hot commodities, including ventilators, N95 respirator and protective gear. Agents don’t hesitate to outbid, or outwit, purchasers from other nations, the official said on Uvda, an investigative news program on Israel’s Channel 12.
“We are utilizing our special connections to win the race and perhaps do what the whole world is doing,” he said.
The Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, answers directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister’s office declined to comment on the scope of the program Thursday, other than to confirm that he ordered the operation in the middle of March.
An Israeli official said that as the entire government shifted to a crisis footing, senior leaders tapped the Mossad to take a leading role in procurement, not because of the agency’s secret agents but its logistical prowess. This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Israel would not divert supplies earmarked for other countries.
Israel has reported more than 6,200 cases of the COVID-19 infection, including more than 100 now in intensive care.
The country has a well-regarded, but dangerously underfunded, national health-care system. The hospital network was already struggling with one of the highest occupancy rates of any developed country when the outbreak began.
National security observers say that Mossad’s speed, spycraft and international networks would make it good at identifying and securing medical supplies.
“The Mossad doesn’t have logistical capacity, it has contacts everywhere, including in the Arab world,” said Yossi Melman, a longtime observer of Israel’s intelligence community and columnist for Ha’aretz. Melman said, for instance, Mossad would be able to find ventilators for sale in the remotest corners of the world.
Governments around the world have been rushing to acquire medical supplies from the same dwindling global inventories, pitting countries against each other and producing bidding wars that have driven up prices as demand soars.
“Two hundred countries, except possibly for one or two, are competing fiercely for this equipment,” Netanyahu said in a speech two weeks ago. “The State of Israel is using all means at its disposal — all means — in a tremendous effort to make up the shortfall.”
The Mossad effort has reportedly secured 25,000 N95 respiratory masks, 10 million surgical masks and more than 20,000 virus testing kits. It has also obtained 27 ventilators, with another 160 on the way, though this represents only a small fraction of what hospitals need.
The agency’s first foray into buying supplies abroad was a costly mistake, according to reports, when the Mossad was delivered ten of thousands of unusable virus testing kits. But officials said the pace and quality of the supply shipments have picked up.
Melman said he is uncomfortable with the mixing of cloak-and-dagger with scrubs-and-needles, arguing that whatever deals the spy agency makes now will come due when the crisis is over.
“There are no freebies,” he said. “Eventually Mossad will have to pay it back, who knows in what currency.”
Other Israeli agencies have said the intelligence agency is not alone in its foreign shopping spree.
A spokesman for the Israeli military confirmed that it was working with Mossad and other agencies to acquire medical equipment and other supplies from abroad. The military also declined to say where and how the goods are obtained.
A diplomatic official said the foreign ministry has bought supplies in North America, South America, Asia and Europe, the diplomatic official said, removing the typical bureaucratic barriers to get deliveries in the air.
This official, who was not authorized to be named, said the government purchasing effort is coordinated from a command center where Mossad officials join staffers from the defense and foreign affairs ministries, working off a health ministry wish list.
Israel is also ramping up domestic production, with the army’s elite 81st Technological Unit now making ventilators and protective gear. One plant pivoted from making tank parts and body armor to medical goggles and sanitizing sprayers.