Already exhausted from testing for monkeypox and Lassa fever, Nigerian molecular bio-engineer Nnaemeka Ndodo had to work well past midnight earlier this month to find out if six Chinese construction workers were infected with the coronavirus. Ndodo had to collect samples from a hospital an hour away in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, then wait for six hours to get the results in what’s one of only five laboratories able to test for the virus in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
In about three months’ time, U.K.-based Mologic Ltd., in collaboration with Senegalese research foundation Institut Pasteur de Dakar, could shorten that wait to 10 minutes with a test that will help a continent with the world’s most fragile healthcare system cope with the pandemic.
With few resources and staff, authorities are racing to contain the spread of the disease in Africa, which accounts for 1% of global health expenditure but carries 23% of the disease burden, including hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.
Thirty-six of 54 countries on the continent have the capacity to test for the coronavirus, but a spike in cases could overwhelm laboratories. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Sunday he struck a partnership with Chinese billionaire Jack Ma to distribute between 10,000 and 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks per African country, as well as newly developed guidebooks for treatment.
Separately, the Ethiopia-based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention expects to distribute 200,000 tests across the continent next week, mostly from Berlin-based TIB Molbiol GmbH, according to the group’s head of laboratory, Yenew Kebede.
“There is no shortage of lab tests in Africa, but what we want is the faster, cheaper test to quickly confirm if there is an outbreak and contain it before it gets bigger,”said Rosanna Peeling, chair of diagnostics research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Using technology from home pregnancy and malaria tests, Mologic’s saliva and finger-prick kit could be ready for sale by June for less than $1 apiece.
“We are ensuring that these tests are made accessible at the cost of manufacture,” said Joe Fitchett, medical director of Mologic, which received a $1.2 million grant from the U.K. government to develop the test.
The current Covid-19 tests, known as PCR tests, detect the genetic material of the pathogen in a laboratory process that can take several hours and cost over $400 in some private facilities.