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Laurie Kuypers, a registered nurse, reaches into a car to take a nasopharyngeal swab from a patient at a drive-through COVID-19 coronavirus testing station for University of Washington Medicine patients, March 17, 2020, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson/AP

Why Diagnostic Testing Is Crucial in the Fight Against COVID-19

Why Global Citizens Should Care
It is critical that countries work together to flatten the curve and protect the world’s most vulnerable from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic by working on testing, treatments, and vaccines for all. Join us and take action to combat the coronavirus here.

As the world awaits the development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, diagnostic testing remains the first line of defense against the virus.

Diagnostic testing determines whether or not an individual is infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

There are two types of testing available: viral and antibody. Viral tests use a nasal swab to test for COVID-19, while antibody tests require a plasma sample, which is obtained through a blood test.

Testing is important in helping to tackle and combat COVID-19 because it allows people to confirm if they have the virus, which means they can then self-isolate and seek appropriate care.

"Testing is the only way to identify flare-ups and hot spots so that appropriate containment measures can be implemented," Gabrielle Landry Chappuis, the director of external affairs at the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), told Global Citizen. "It allows economies to reopen — and stay open. In the future, it will be vital for the introduction of vaccines and therapeutics. Most importantly, it is actionable now: testing, tracing, and isolating confirmed cases works."

Mass testing has helped contain the virus in South Korea, New Zealand, and Germany.

Countries with weak health care systems, however, are struggling to keep up with testing demands and are subsequently overwhelmed by the spread of the virus.

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For instance, South America has just become the new epicenter of the pandemic, surpassing Europe in the number of confirmed cases. Reported cases in Africa have also surged to over 100,000 in recent days, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

While both regions have access to testing in order to confirm these cases, testing is still not widely available to everyone who needs it.

So far, nearly 80 million COVID-19 tests have been conducted across the globe, but wealthier countries tend to have more robust testing. 

Iceland, Bahrain, Malta, Luxembourg, and Russia are among the countries with the highest testing numbers.

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Meanwhile, lower-income countries like Laos, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, and Sudan reported less than four tests conducted per every 100,000 people.

Africa and Southeast Asia remain among the regions with the lowest number of reported tests. 

"Testing depends on well-resourced laboratory systems, using complex diagnostics — and even access to these tests is complicated by high prices, broken supply chains, and complex ordering systems," Chappuis said. "While there are hundreds of tests in development, we still don’t have a simple, easy-to-use, affordable, and reliable test that can be made available to everyone, everywhere."

The coronavirus pandemic is already on track to cause 34 million people across the globe to fall below the international poverty line by the end of 2020, according to the United Nations.

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Making sure everyone has access to testing will help contain the spread of the virus and allow countries to reopen and revive their economies. 

As part of the ACT Accelerator Diagnostics Partnership, FIND and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria are working to ensure that diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is available to everyone around the world.

The two organizations are working to accelerate affordable and quality diagnostic testing, support the cost of testing tools in developing nations, and help strengthen health systems in countries across the globe.

"We have worked with partners including the WHO, Unitaid, and the World Bank to develop a detailed projection of the procurement needs and costs to address urgent needs in low- and middle-income countries," Chappuis added.

According to Chappuis, $6 billion in investments is needed within the next 12 months to help fund testing — $2 billion of which is needed immediately for further innovation and the procurement of existing tests.