African health officials race to fill virus test gap

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention plans to distribute a million Covid-19 test kits from next week to help the continent tackle a glaring shortfall in testing, its director, John Nkengasong, said on Thursday.

“There is a big gap on the continent on testing,” Nkengasong said at a weekly press conference at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. “Something has to be done.”

Africa has so far been hit less hard than other regions by Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus – at least according to official figures.

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 around 6 000 tests, while Ethiopia, with more than 100 million people, has conducted around 5 000, he said.

Distributing a million new test kits is still far short of what is needed, Nkengasong acknowledged.

“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 UNAIDS to get more African community health workers engaged in contact tracing, he said.

African health officials are also trying to assess equipment needs across the continent.

While South Africa has some 1 500 ventilators – breathing machines that can be essential to saving patients with serious Covid-19 – there are 10 countries in Africa that have none at all, he said.

The African countries with the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases are South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Cameroon.

African health officials race to fill virus test gap