New rapid coronavirus testing, soon to be available throughout Africa, could be a “game changer” for the continent, the World Health Organization said Thursday.
The new, cheaper, less fragile tests could help health systems identify and treat cases more quickly, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa. 20 million antigen tests are being distributed to low and middle income countries, she said, with many headed to the continent.
“This would be a game-changer, we think, in the fight against COVID-19,” she told journalists. “These high-quality rapid tests will help meet the huge unmet need for testing in Africa. While there are testing challenges in many parts of the world, we've seen that African countries have faced significant gaps throughout the pandemic. For example, Senegal has significantly boosted its testing capacity, but it still is testing 14 times less than the Netherlands. Nigeria is testing 11 times less than Brazil.”
Unlike the currently used polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, these tests don’t require labs for processing. They’re also cheaper and don’t rely on expensive, fragile reagents, like the PCR tests do.
The new tests seek specific proteins — called antigens — on the surface of the virus, and can yield results in less than 30 minutes without needing to be sent to a high-tech lab. As a result, the new tests can also be deployed to rural clinics, allowing health systems to find cases outside of major population centers.
More tests, more cases?
But Dr. Susan Ndidde Nabadda, head of the Ugandan National Health Laboratory Services and Central Public Health Laboratory, noted that the new tests aren’t a complete replacement. The rapid tests are designed to detect fairly high levels of antigens — meaning people who are in the early stages of infection may falsely test negative.
Since the pandemic took off in March, the sub-Saharan African region has seen 1.27 million confirmed cases — among the lowest caseload on the planet. Nabadda says that more widespread testing could see those numbers rise.
“If we have good quality, more quality tests … which will increase access to testing, we might see more numbers coming on board,” she said. “I heard from Guinea that when they started use of the [new tests], their numbers went up, and their identification of cases also went up. So I think that is one of, it could be one of the causes that we have seen a low number of cases in Africa as compared to all of the developed countries.”
Wash your hands
And, Moeti says, that’s all the more reason to maintain vigilance in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The region has experienced a downward trend from a daily average of more than 15,000 cases in July to less than 4,000 in the past month,” she said. “But in the past couple of weeks, the decline has slowed down to a plateau as countries ease restrictions on movement, and some increases in cases are expected. But preventing an explanation rise is absolutely critical.”
Better testing and stronger health systems play a big role in the fight, she said — but so do ordinary people. To that end, she repeated her guidance: wear masks, keep your distance, and wash your hands.