The police in the southern Indian state of Karnataka have arrested four people on suspicion of helping a South African man leave India with a fake negative coronavirus test report, officials said on Tuesday.
The South African tested positive for the coronavirus when he arrived in the city of Bengaluru on Nov. 20. The authorities said he was 66 and a director of a pharmaceutical company, but have not released his name.
The man was later confirmed to have the Omicron variant of the virus, becoming one of India’s first known cases of the new variant.
Health officials asked him to keep a strict quarantine in a hotel for 14 days, and they sent his test specimens for genomic sequencing. During this time, the police say, the man obtained a fake negative coronavirus test result and left the hotel without informing local health authorities. He then boarded a flight to South Africa on Nov. 27.
When the sequencing results came back on Dec. 2, revealing that the man had the Omicron variant, officials went to look for him, but “when we arrived at the hotel, we found him missing,” said Dr. K. V. Trilok Chandra, a top health official in Bengaluru.
The authorities began an investigation into how the man managed to leave the country. The police said he received help from two employees at a lab after promising them higher-paid jobs at the pharmaceutical company in return for a falsified test report. The lab workers were arrested. The police also arrested two senior employees at the pharmaceutical company.
There is a black market for false virus documents in South Asia, including Bangladesh, where one minister called the widespread use of fake Covid-19 certificates “a huge blow to the image of our country.”
The Indian authorities started an investigation in June after learning that some private agencies that were responsible for coronavirus testing of pilgrims at a sprawling Hindu festival had forged at least 100,000 test results.
The case of the South African executive is not the first time India has run into issues with travelers since the emergence of Omicron. Officials said earlier this month that for days, they had been unable to get in touch with or track at least 10 people who had arrived in Bengaluru from southern Africa, where the variant is widespread, because the people had switched off their mobile phones. (They were later located.)
India has reported 49 cases of the Omicron variant so far, including new cases on Tuesday in New Delhi and the state of Rajasthan.