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Africa launches plan to increase Covid-19 testing

Partnership will offer access to diagnostics and deploy community health workers

The African Union has launched a plan to dramatically increase Covid-19 testing over the next few months.

The Partnership to Accelerate Covid-19 Testing in Africa was launched on 4 June. It aims to drive up the total number of tests done on the continent to 20 million over the next few months, from the current total of 2.5 million, said John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which is coordinating the partnership. 

As of 4 June Africa had 162,673 confirmed Covid-19 cases, and 4,601 deaths. But this is likely an undercount, Nkengasong and others have repeatedly said, because many African countries have struggled to access diagnostics and to scale up their testing programmes. Even relatively wealthy countries like South Africa have had a hard time getting hold of the chemicals needed to carry out the tests, and to turn around tests quickly.

Therefore, scaling up testing is a vital component of Africa’s pandemic response, said Nkengasong. “We have to dig out where the virus is hiding in our communities, find [it], flush [it] out and get back to normal.” 

The PACT programme aims to address both the shortage of testing kits and the capacity of African nations to carry out tests in bulk. It has built and stocked an online platform from which African countries will be able to buy equipment and reagents for testing for Covid-19. The platform will be able to supply 15 million tests per month, at low prices. 

The PACT programme will also help bridge the testing capacity on the continent, by deploying 1 million community workers and training 100,000 healthcare workers to take part in the testing effort. Nkengasong said the platform will be a gamechanger for the African response to Covid-19.

Still, scaling up testing, while necessary, will not be sufficient to stop the virus in Africa, Nkengasong warned. He said that the most crucial battle against Covid-19 will be at the community level, where contacts of those who test positively need to be traced and monitored. “If you test you must trace the contacts otherwise the testing doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Nkengasong said that Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president of the African Union and South Africa’s president, will officially inaugurate the platform on 11 June. According to Nkengasong four African countries—Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya—have begun to produce diagnostics for Covid-19 locally.