Africa CDC rolls out strategy to ramp up coronavirus testing

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Health extension workers conduct a temperature screening in Ethiopia. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / 2020 / Tewodros Tadasse / CC BY-NC-ND

NAIROBI — The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention rolled out a new initiative Thursday to ramp up the COVID-19 response across the continent.

Known as the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing in Africa, or PACT, the initiative aims to ramp up testing, contact tracing, and treatment of cases on the continent.

Through this initiative, Africa CDC is putting forth a “call to action” to governments, as well as pledging to support the testing of 10 million people over the next four months, the deployment of 1 million community health workers, who will be involved in contact tracing, as well as the training of 100,000 health care workers.

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Currently, there are over 163,000 cases of COVID-19 across the continent, with an average of about 5,400 new cases per day, said Dr. John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC, during a press conference.

African countries have only conducted 2.4 million tests with a positivity rate of 6.4%. Ten countries contribute to 79% of the testing, said Raji Tajudeen, head of public health institutes and research at Africa CDC, during a webinar Wednesday.

“It’s an opportunity to unlock the supply chain management for the commodities that we need to fight COVID-19.”

—  Dr. John Nkengasong, director, Africa CDC

On average, African countries have tested about 1,700 people for every 1 million people living on the continent, Nkengasong said — much lower than the rest of the world. For example, Italy has tested 37,000 people per 1 million and the United Kingdom about 30,000 per 1 million.

Since everyone cannot be tested, because of global shortages of tests, the initiative aims to focus on “smart screening” — testing in areas with high levels of cases, Tajudeen said. It also encourages countries to decentralize testing away from capital cities.

As part of the initiative, PACT also plans next week to launch a continentwide procurement, storage, and distribution platform for health commodities needed in the COVID-19 response.

This new platform will allow countries to put in requests for diagnostic kits at an agreed-upon, competitive price. It will be a “game changer,” Nkengasong said.

“You don’t need to search the market anymore because we have searched that market for you and accumulated and secured those products,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to unlock the supply chain management for the commodities that we need to fight COVID-19.”

Five African countries will initially test out the platform.

“We know countries, who are reaching out to us and saying: ‘Look, John, we have the money but we don’t know where to buy stuff. Help us,’” he said. “That dynamic changes as of today.”

In order to fund these activities, there are special envoys of the African Union chairperson working with bilateral and multilateral systems to make sure that countries have financing available to pay for an expansion of testing, he said, adding that national ministers of finance need to release those funds quickly so that countries can scale up their testing.

PACT is part of the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19, which was launched in February.

Why lockdowns aren't a one-size-fits-all solution to the pandemic

Some health experts question the suitability of nationwide lockdowns in places with weak health systems and fragile economies.

It comes as African nations begin to ease some of their lockdown measures, which have had severe economic consequences throughout the continent. Strong public health measures are going to play an important role in the next phase of the pandemic so that strict lockdowns can be lifted, and economies can be reopened, Tajudeen said.

“Testing is one key approach that member states need to focus on as we begin to ease lockdowns — we need to scale up testing,” he said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Africa CDC has distributed over 2.5 million tests.

With the new initiative, Mastercard Foundation committed $40 million to purchase 1 million test kits and train and deploy 10,000 community health workers and 80 surveillance rapid responders.

But despite these efforts, these goals fall short relative to testing efforts in other parts of the world. Africa would need to conduct around 65.5 million more tests to reach levels seen in Europe and elsewhere, said Kate Dooley, West Africa regional director for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, in an emailed statement.

"Many countries will not likely be able to keep up with the virus, and we have already seen testing backlogs in Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya," she said.

If it's not possible to source enough tests in the global market, Africa CDC and national governments should source reliable antibody tests, she said. Government might need to consider rationing tests, such as recording probable cases based on symptoms rather than on  test results, and also pooling tests, which is a tactic where up to 10 samples are tested at once, rather than one at a time.

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About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.