The World Health Organisation has announced it and leading partners have agreed to a plan to roll out 120 million rapid-diagnostic tests for coronavirus to help lower and middle-income countries make up ground in a testing gap with richer countries — even if it is not fully funded yet.
The WHO issued an emergency-use listing last week for the antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests which cost 5 dollars (£3.90) each.
The programme initially requires 600 million dollars (£467 million) and is to get started as early as next month to provide better access to areas where it is harder to reach with PCR tests that are often used in wealthier nations.
The rapid tests look for antigens, or proteins found on the surface of the virus. They are generally considered less accurate — though much faster — than higher-grade genetic tests, known as PCR tests.
PCR tests require processing with specialised lab equipment and chemicals. Typically that turnaround takes several days to deliver results to patients.
The quicker #COVID19 can be diagnosed, the quicker action can be taken to treat & isolate those with the virus & trace their contacts. The tests are a critical tool for governments as they look to reopen economies & ultimately save both lives & livelihoods https://t.co/awnLTGlxmr— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) September 28, 2020
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the programme as “good news” in the fight against Covid-19.
“These tests provide reliable results in approximately 15 to 30 minutes, rather than hours or days, at a lower price with less sophisticated equipment,” he said.
“This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard-to-reach areas that do not have lab facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out PCR tests.
“We have an agreement, we have seed funding and now we need the full amount of funds to buy these tests.”
Catharina Boehme, chief executive of a non-profit group called the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, said the rollout would be in 20 countries in Africa, and would rely on support of groups including the Clinton Health Access Initiative. She said the diagnostic tests will be provided by SD Biosensor and Abbott.
Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, a partnership that works to end epidemics, said it would make an initial 50 million dollars available from its Covid-19 response mechanism. He said the deployment of the quality antigen rapid diagnostic tests will be a “significant step” to help contain and combat coronavirus.
“They’re not a silver bullet, but hugely valuable as a complement to PCR tests, since although they are less accurate, they’re much faster, cheaper and don’t require a lab,” he said.
Many rich countries have also faced problems rolling out accurate tests, and testing itself is no panacea – countries like France and the US have all faced backlogs and hiccups at times, and rapid tests in the UK and Spain turned out to be inaccurate.
But rolling out testing in poorer countries aims to help health care workers get a better grip on where the virus is circulating, in hopes of following up with containment and other measures to stop it.
Mr Sands said high-income countries are carrying out 292 tests per day per 100,000 people — while the lowest-income countries were conducting 14 per 100,000 people.
He said the 120 million tests would represent a “massive increase” in testing, but are still a fraction of what is needed in those countries.