The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) plans to distribute one million COVID-19 test kits from next week to help countries across the continent address a testing shortfall, according to the director of the African Union body.
“There is a big gap on the continent on testing,” John Nkengasong said at a weekly press conference on Thursday at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. “Something has to be done.”
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Official figures show that Africa has so far been hit less hard than other continents by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, with 911 known deaths and 3,546 registered recoveries among 17,247 confirmed cases.
But limited testing in many countries has deprived African officials of a full picture of the disease’s spread.
Nkengasong noted that the problem was especially apparent in the continent’s two most populous countries.
Nigeria, with nearly 200 million people, has conducted about 6,000 tests, while Ethiopia, with more than 100 million people, has conducted about 5,000, he said.
Distributing a million new test kits is still far short of what is needed, Nkengasong said.
“Over the next three months or six months, we probably need like 15 million tests, however, a journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first mile,” he said.
The distribution of testing kits is part of a new programme called the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing, or PACT.
Another component of the programme involves working with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to get more African community health workers engaged in contact tracing, Nkengasong said.
Health officials in various parts of the continent are also trying to assess equipment needs.
While South Africa has about 1,500 ventilators – breathing machines that can be essential to saving patients in serious COVID-19 cases – there are 10 countries in Africa that have none at all, Nkengasong said.
The World Health Organization has said fewer than 5,000 intensive care unit beds are available across 43 of the continent’s 54 countries, noting “This is about five beds per one million people in the reported countries compared to 4,000 beds per one million people in Europe.”
Last week, African Union officials said countries on the continent are struggling to compete with wealthier states for testing kits and other equipment necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“The cornerstone to preventing any disease is to test. Only when we’re able to test will we be able to trace contracts and administer treatment if needed,” Kwesi Quartey, deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission, said.
According to Africa CDC, the African countries with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases are South Africa (2,506), Egypt (2,505), Algeria (2,160), Morocco (2,024) and Cameroon (855).