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WHO, partners roll out rapid coronavirus tests for poorer nations

A rapid COVID-19 test at a high school in Rome
A rapid COVID-19 test being conducted at a high school in Rome on Monday.
(Cecilia Fabiano / LaPresse)

The World Health Organization announced Monday that it and leading partners have agreed to roll out 120 million rapid-diagnostic tests for the coronavirus to help lower- and middle-income countries make up ground in a testing gap with richer countries — even if the plan is not fully funded yet.

The program requires $600 million to cover the antigen-based rapid-diagnostic tests, which cost $5 apiece and for which the WHO issued an emergency-use listing last week. The rollout is to begin as early as next month.

The WHO’s announcement came as deaths from COVID-19 passed the 1-million mark worldwide. There have been 33.4 million known cases of the disease, according to data compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The rapid-diagnostic tests look for antigens, or proteins found on the surface of the virus. These tests are generally considered less accurate — though much faster — than higher-grade genetic tests, known as PCR tests. Those require processing with specialty lab equipment and chemicals, and typically take several days to deliver results.

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the new rapid-testing program as “good news” in the fight against COVID-19.

“These tests provide reliable results in approximately 15 to 30 minutes, rather than hours or days, at a lower price, with less sophisticated equipment,” he said. “This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard-to-reach areas that do not have lab facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out PCR tests.”

The global COVID-19 death toll surpassed 1 million, one measurement of a scourge that has ravaged lives and economies and evoked an era of plagues.

He added that the effort has “seed funding,” but “now we need the full amount of funds to buy these tests.”

Dr. Catharina Boehme, chief executive of the nonprofit group Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, said the rollout would initially take place in 20 African countries and rely on the support of such groups as the Clinton Health Access Initiative. She said the diagnostic tests would be provided by the companies SD Biosensor and Abbott Laboratories.

Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, which works to end epidemics, said the organization would make an initial $50 million available from its COVID-19 response fund. He said deployment of rapid COVID-19 tests would be a “significant step” to help contain and combat the disease.

“They’re not a silver bullet but hugely valuable as a complement to PCR tests, since although they are less accurate, they’re much faster, cheaper and don’t require a lab,” he said.

President Trump has announced the shipment of millions of rapid coronavirus tests to states this week

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Many rich countries have also faced problems rolling out accurate tests, and testing itself is no panacea. Countries such as France and the United States have all faced backlogs and hiccups at times, and rapid tests in Britain and Spain turned out to be inaccurate.

But rolling out testing in poorer countries aims to help healthcare workers get a better grip on where the coronavirus is circulating, in hopes of following up with containment and other measures to stop it.

Sands said high-income countries are currently carrying out 292 tests per day per 100,000 people, while the lowest-income countries were conducting 14 per 100,000 people.

He said the 120 million tests would represent a “massive increase” in testing, but were still a fraction of what is needed in those countries.


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