The World Health Organisation (WHO) is working closely with African countries to start rolling out new antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus.
These rapid tests are expected to improve the current testing process in African countries — described by the WHO as a “game changer” for tackling the pandemic in Africa. They are easier to use and cheaper than the polymerase chain reaction tests (PCR tests) that are currently being used in most countries.
But the PCR tests require laboratories and experts to determine a diagnosis of COVID-19, which has so far limited Africa’s testing capability to large cities. More than this, the process of taking the test and receiving the results can take anywhere from 48 hours to 10 days, as those tested have to wait for confirmation from laboratories.
In contrast to this, the new antigen-based rapid tests only take 15-30 minutes to produce a result, and they can be taken in any region.
In a press conference, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said that the new tests can revolutionise the continent’s response to COVID-19.
“The new, antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests will help meet the huge testing needs in Africa,” she said.
According to All Africa, many African countries have struggled to test enough people in order to control the pandemic in their region. In the past month some countries were reportedly only able to carry out an average of 10 tests per 10,000 people each week.
All Africa also reported that a few African countries have not tested in the same capacity as other countries of a similar size. For example, while Senegal has significantly boosted its testing capacity, the country is testing 14 times less than the Netherlands. Nigeria is testing 11 times less than Brazil.
The new WHO-approved rapid tests are not a replacement for the PCR tests, but rather an addition to them. The test will be more effective when used on patients who show symptoms, those who have a high viral load, or a high concentration of the virus in their upper respiratory tract.
The WHO has recommended that the tests be used in these four scenarios:
1. Wherever there is a suspected COVID-19 outbreak and there is no access to PCR testing. This includes in remote and rural areas that are hard to reach.
2. To trace the extent of an outbreak in a region, where at least one person has been has received a positive result from a PCR test.
3. In spaces where this is a higher risk, for example, among health care and frontline workers.
4. In areas where there is wide-spread community transition.
"Most African countries are focused on testing travellers, patients, or contacts, and we estimate that a significant number of cases are still missed. With rapid testing, authorities can stay a step ahead of COVID-19 by scaling up active case finding in challenging environments, such as crowded urban neighbourhoods and communities in the hinterlands," said Moeti.
Some 120 million of these rapid tests are being made available to low- and middle-income countries globally. To assist with the rollout of these tests WHO is working closely with countries and partners to deploy technical experts, develop a training package, and issue key guidance documents with detailed information on how to use the tests, and in which situations they should be used.