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Africa's race for coronavirus testing kits

Isaac Mugabi AP, AFP
April 22, 2020

African countries are racing against time to acquire testing kits that would help them step up their fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic. The continent needs more than 15 million kits for COVID-19.

A health worker in South Africa prepares for COVID-19 tests
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Spatari

According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the continent needs more than 15 million test kits to diagnose the novel coronavirus. However, the Africa CDC can only provide 1 million in the coming weeks.

"There is a big gap on the continent on testing," Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said. He added that identifying and tracking people who are infected will be key in giving Africa a "fighting chance" during the pandemic, the Associated Press news agency reported.

"Over the next three months or six months, we probably need like 15 million tests," Nkengasong said. "However, a journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first mile. Let's start with the first mile."

The Africa CDC acquired the 1 million test kits from Germany and will roll them out starting this week, Nkengasong said. 

Africa CDC officials have expressed optimism that other international partners will come to the agency's rescue. However, with countries largely fending for themselves, there is less optimism that help will arrive as soon as it is needed. 

The Africa CDC has so far recorded more than 23,500 confirmed cases and 1,160 deaths in 52 of the continent's 54 countries. The small kingdom of Lesotho and the Comoros islands are the only African nations without reported cases.

Read more: COVID-19 compounds Africa's preexisting health sector problems

Countries overview

In South Africa, which has one of the highest caseloads on the continent, with more than 3,400 confirmed infections, has reported testing about 126,000 people. Nkengasong said South Africa had a "very aggressive testing strategy." 

In Nigeria, the private sector-led Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) has ordered 250,000 test kits and another 150,000 extraction kits to fast-track molecular testing for the coronavirus.

The coalition is a composition of 50 leading businesses spearheaded by the Aliko Dangote Foundation. "If everyone does their own thing, then it creates a cacophony," Zouera Youssoufou, the foundation's managing director, told AFP.

"So everyone puts in what they can depending on their size, and they can pool resources," Youssoufou said.

CACOVID is also building seven emergency isolation centers in key cities and looking to help increase the number of tests, which is so far just about 5,000 per day. 

Nigeria's Access Bank pledged about $57 million (€52.5 million) to bolster capacity.

A Nigerian police officer gestures to a person on a bus
Distancing and masks have become the norm in many parts of AfricaImage: Getty Images/AFP/P.-U. Ekpei

In Ghana, which has only two testing centers, in Accra and Kumasi, drones are being used to transport samples to the facilities. This is because hospitals in rural areas are struggling to reach the remotest parts of the country because of logistical challenges such as a lack of fuel.

Some medical facilities in northern Tamale were delivering their samples through postal services, which was delaying the process.

"It was going through Ghana Post, and by car it was very expensive because of the back-and-forth trips to the testing center," Alimatu Dawuni, a frontline nurse, told DW. "But with the drone, within 24 hours, results are in; it is good for us."

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently hailed local companies that are making face masks and other articles of personal protection equipment (PPE). Students at the Kenyatta University — named after his father and the country's first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta — have also developed a prototype and cost-effective ventilator for use in local hospitals.

"Our testing capability has gone up dramatically, and we have tested over 10,000 individuals," Kenyatta said. "This week the Ministry of Health has received more testing reagents that will allow us to upscale our testing capacity, starting with targeted areas and eventually to the wider Kenyan population."

Read moreCorona Crisis in Kenya

Afrika Sambia Coronavirus Vorkehrungen
The coronavirus had spread widely across China and Europe before the first cases were reported in sub-Saharan AfricaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Mwiche

In Burkina Faso, the picture is grim. The country confirmed its first case on March 9, 2020, but has so far screened only 3,000 contact cases. "On average we carry out 100 tests, and that means that the penetration rate is still very low," said Alfred Ouedraogo, the secretary-general of a union of Burkinabe doctors.

Ouedraogo recommends that, in addition to the tests, states equip themselves to follow the evolution of the virus in order to react to a possible mutation.

Cameroon has more than 1,000 confirmed cases so far. President Paul Biya has offered 2 billion CFA (€3 million/$3.3 million) from his private pocket to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Since COVID-19 hit the country in early March, Cameroonians have not heard directly from Biya. Critics of the regime say his presence is more reassuring to the people than gifts. 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Magloire Bell, a specialist in health insurance, told DW that screening remains the biggest challenge in Africa. She said the 1 million test kits that the African Union has provided were far too little to meet the demand.

"The gesture of the African Union is laudable, but it is more symbolic than effective," Bell said. :If we do the calculation quickly, that makes 19,000 tests per country."

The African Union has launched a public-private fund with the goal of raising $400 million from governments, international lenders and businesses to curb transmissions and support the medical response. 

According to the World Health Organization, testing all suspected cases is vital to suppress the spread of the virus because it allows health authorities to treat and isolate all patients and their recent social contacts.

Read more: Security forces in Africa brutalizing civilians under lockdown

Jack Ma
Jack Ma is co-founded the e-commerce giant Alibaba GroupImage: picture alliance / dpa

The philanthropists 

Around the globe, wealthy individuals from Bill Gates to Twitter's Jack Dorsey have promised significant contributions to take on the global pandemic.

China's richest man, Jack Ma, the founder of online retailer Alibaba, has dispatched more than 1 million test kits, as well as PPE, to Africa. 

In South Africa, the mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, the Rupert family , and the Oppenheimer family of diamond kingpins have each pledged 1 billion rand (€48.6 million/$53 million) to help with the effects of the fallout from the pandemic on smaller businesses and their employees.

Tony Elumelu, the president of the United Bank of Africa and one of Nigeria's wealthiest people, told AFP that there would need to be a "Marshall Plan" to help Africa weather the storm.

"There is an urgent need for African governments and international partners to step up with an emergency COVID-19 economic stimulus package for the continent," said the magnate, who has offered $14 million of his fortune to tackle the crisis.

But officials say getting big businesses in Africa and international lenders to cough up quickly for a continent-wide push is not easy. 

Aliko Dangote
Aliko Dangote is estimated to be worth around $8.2 billion, according to ForbesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Petit Tesson

"For now, no one has really participated," one senior AU official told AFP on condition of anonymity. "The most inclined to give quickly are the Chinese. That is why we got the aid quickly from Jack Ma." 

"We want the African billionaires to follow that example," the official said, "but unfortunately too often it is a case of appearances only."

The official pointed to the pledges of support during the Ebola epidemic that ravaged West Africa from 2014 to 2016. "Beyond Dangote and Motsepe, very few people actually released the money," the source said. 

Youssoufou, the managing director, said the Dangote Foundation would "commit to the continent" but added that the priority is Nigeria. "We are pan-African in essence," she said, "but, first, you put on your own oxygen mask before helping others."

Now, as the figures mount, businesses and governments around the region are stepping up their own efforts to mobilize funds.  

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