Dakar, Senegal – Researchers this week began validation trials on a COVID-19 diagnostic test that can be done at home and produce results in as little as 10 minutes – all for $1.
The plan is to manufacture the tests in Senegal and the United Kingdom and, if the validation testing meets regulatory standards, they could be distributed across Africa as early as June.
“Our focus is to provide tests to the African continent,” Amadou Sall, director of the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, told Al Jazeera.
Sall and his team of researchers in the Senegalese capital, who previously worked on vaccines for yellow fever and dengue, developed the prototype for the diagnostic test in partnership with Mologic, a British biotech company founded by the inventor of a widely used pregnancy test.
Once ready, the tests will be produced in the UK and at a new Dakar-based facility managed by DiaTropix, a subsidiary of the Pasteur Institute that focuses on infectious disease testing.
According to Sall, the Dakar site will have an initial capacity to produce up to four million tests annually. The developers are also in early-stage talks for local manufacturing sites to be set up in other parts of the continent.
“When COVID-19 hit, we knew from the beginning that Africa would be disproportionally affected,” Joe Fitchett, the medical director of Mologic told Al Jazeera. “With a test like this, you can detect [the virus] very quickly on any part of the continent and then avoid transmission.”
To detect as many people as possible, Fitchett says the test will be sold at cost-price – which is approximately $1 – thanks to grant support from the UK government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The point is to keep it to the bottom,” Fitchett said, adding they would work with suppliers to keep the price as low as possible.
COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, has no vaccine or known treatment.
Until a vaccine is ready, widespread testing is seen as one of the most important strategies used to “flatten the curve” – slowing the spread of the contagion in an attempt to prevent already stretched healthcare systems from being overrun.
Earlier this month, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries to build up their testing capacity to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, calling them to “test, test, test”.
“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate,” he told reporters in Geneva. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.”
With tests at advanced, centralised laboratories still costly and taking hours to complete, dozens of companies worldwide are working to develop rapid, easy-to-use kits and distribute them widely – but questions remain over their accuracy.
Price and availability, however, are not the only barriers to widespread use. By developing a test that can be done at home without any need for electricity, the researchers in Senegal say it can be of particular use in rural communities where power is limited, and laboratories are near inaccessible.
Their test can be done in two different ways – using saliva or blood. Those with an active infection would use a saliva swab to detect the new coronavirus, while those with a previously undetected case would use an at-home finger prick test to check for coronavirus antibodies.
There are currently more than 2,800 confirmed cases in 45 of the continent’s 54 countries. While that is still significantly lower than the current epicentre in Europe, some analysts fear Africa is on course to follow a similar trajectory.
Such a scenario would spell disaster in a continent that accounts for 1 percent of global health expenditure but carries 23 percent of the disease burden. Weaker health systems, poor sanitation and water shortages are just some of the additional challenges that would make it harder to fight the virus.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has significantly ramped up its prevention strategy in recent weeks, training labs in 43 countries, a swift increase from only two countries that were able to test for the disease in February. It has also been providing 1,000 test kits to any country with cases. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated an additional 1.1 million test kits. But that still is only a drop in the bucket compared with what will be needed.
“In times like these, it’s difficult for African governments to purchase tests which are also cheaper and cost-effective,” Prashant Yadav, a global supply chain analyst at the Center for Global Health, told Al Jazeera.
That is why he says the continent having a test of its own could be a game-changer. “You’re giving people on the continent access to a new test which very other few groups have had access to,” Yadav said.
Prototypes for the diagnostic test are now being assessed by two laboratories in the UK; the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and St George’s University London. Additional tests have been sent for independent assessment at labs around the world, including Senegal, Spain, China, Malaysia and Brazil.
The development of the prototype comes less than three weeks after Mologic was awarded one million British pounds ($1.2m) from the UK government as part of a 46-million British pound ($56m) fund for international coronavirus prevention and research. That is lightning-fast for a diagnostic test, which typically takes years to develop.
Fitchett credited Mologic’s partnership with the Pasteur Institute in Dakar for speeding up the process.
At the same time, he emphasised the importance of following all proper validation procedures.
“Independent assessment is so critical, which is why we’re working with top labs on every continent,” Fitchett said. “It’s not in our interest to send something out that’s no good.”
Authorities have been cracking down on a rise in fake testing kits being distributed, often sold at a high markup, as people around the world search desperately to get tested amidst shortages.