Hackers target govt Covid certificate control system

A health worker takes a swab sample for Covid-19 testing at Mulago Hospital last year.  PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Issue. A total 113 of the 158 travellers from Uganda who arrived in Dubai on June 6, reportedly tested positive for Covid-19. But the government has not revealed the exact number of people who have so far tested positive in the destination countries.

The government has attributed rising cases of fake Covid-19 test certificates to actions of fraudsters within labour export companies.

According to the Ministry of Health, the fraudsters are forging results and have made attempts to hack into their results control system.

The country risks being placed on the red list for violating international health regulations on travels as a big number of travellers from Entebbe International Airport with Covid-19 certificates indicating negative results are turning out positive when subjected to a re-test at their final destination. 

Addressing journalists in Kampala yesterday, Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the ministry’s spokesperson, said investigations are ongoing.

“It is true that a number of migrant workers, whose origin has been Entebbe International Airport, have been testing positive [for Covid-19] at their final destination. This was as a result of forgeries of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) certificates. Also some unscrupulous individuals have made an attempt to hack into government results system,” he said.

Mr Ainebyoona said they are doing free confirmatory tests for migrant workers who already have Covid-19 certificates for tests done within 72 hours. 

The re-test is being done by the government reference laboratory, Uganda Virus Research Institute and Central Public Health Laboratories.

A July 8 letter from Dr Diana Atwine, the Ministry of Health permanent secretary, stated that the confirmatory tests are being done “to protect the credibility of our health system at meeting international obligations and to deter further blacklisting of our country from international travel arrangements.”

“…with effect from July 11 at 12am, the Ministry of Health will retest migrant workers, 24 hours before their flights. This will be done at a free cost under a government of Ugandan laboratory arrangement,” she said.

Dr Atwine said the position was reached following the high-level inter-ministerial meeting held on June 28 among the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Gender, Civil Aviation Authority and Entebbe Port Health.

“The Ministry of Health is committed to ensuring that all international travels through Entebbe International Airport, including for migrant workers are facilitated with minimal interruptions while at the same time meeting the Covid-19 international health regulations,” she added.

A June 28 letter by Dr Atwine states that “attempting to hack into and compromise the integrity of Government Central Covid-19 Results Dispatch System so that names of travellers and their results are simply entered into the system without undergoing testing.”

Mr Daniel Mutatina, one of the officials at Supreme Link Limited, a labour export company, said the fake certificates being presented by the migrant workers are obtained from laboratories accredited by government to do Covid-19 testing.

“If you scan the QR code for the Covid-19 test certificate presented by migrant workers, you find that the same results are also in the Ministry of Health system,” he said. 

Ms Enid Nambuya, the executive director of Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies, said: “I have heard that some people are paying [to get Covid-19 certificate indicating negative results] without being tested but I have no proof. The re-testing is a good move. This makes us much surer of the status of the people we are externalising. We appreciate the government for the free tests.”

Last month, the government through ministries of Internal Affairs and Gender, Labour and Social Development announced that eight external labour recruitment agencies had been suspended because of forging papers and other abuses such as trafficking and extortion.