The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a warning on Monday to African governments, saying COVID-19 will turn into a “silent epidemic” unless testing is prioritised, and delivered on a much greater scale than it is at the moment.
The organisation’s regional office for Africa hosted a press conference with the director-general of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; the regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshediso Moeti; as well as Dr. Samba Sow, a special envoy at the WHO and director-general of the Center for Vaccine Development in Mali.
There are currently more than 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation.
“My first point for Africa, my first concern, is that a lack of testing is leading to a silent epidemic in Africa. So we must continue to push leaders to prioritise testing,” Sow said.
Testing is crucial in the fight against COVID-19 as it identifies positive cases, meaning that they can then be isolated and treated before the virus spreads in their network.
The day after the World Health Organisation’s warning, South Africa’s Minister of Health Dr. Zweli Mkhize said South Africa is running low on tests. The country has already conducted more than 600,000 tests. However, increasing demand for tests, as well global shortage of supplies could lead to shortages in the country, Mkhize said.
According to a report in the New Humanitarian, Nigeria has tested almost 20,000 cases; Uganda has carried out more than 71,000; Rwanda 48,200, and Tanzania — which has a population of 59 million — 652 tests.
In total, 1.5 million tests were conducted in Africa over six weeks between April and May. Half of them were done in South Africa and Ghana, while only eight out of 54 countries have been able to conduct at least 3,000 for every million people.
Other global organisations that have spoken out about lack of test kits in Africa include the Tony Blair Foundation, which warned that relaxed lockdowns and curfews could result in more cases that need testing.
The foundation’s West Africa director, Kate Dooley, told the Guardian: “Most governments are currently rationing their use of test kits given limited supplies. We are aware of some cases where African governments who placed orders in early March are still yet to receive the supply, six to eight weeks later.”
Countries in Africa also lack the capacity to carry out tests on a massive scale, even without the global competition for resources.
There just aren’t enough laboratories. In Ghana, for example, there are five laboratories that can test for coronavirus. Nigeria, which has a population of more than 200 million, has 25 laboratories that can test for the virus. There were only five when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Nigeria.
President of the Association of Medical and Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria, Dr. Casmir Ifeanyi, told the Guardian: “We’re in a very severe situation especially now the government is talking about further easing the lockdown. Without testing this will create problems.”