TACOMA, Washington — On September 28, 2020, the World Health Organization announced a plan to distribute more than 120 million affordable rapid COVID-19 tests to low-income countries. The agreement aims to lower the testing gap between rich and poor countries. As of right now, there is very little testing occurring in low-income countries. While North America and Europe test over 200 people per 100,000 population daily, Africa tests less than 16. Without testing, many poorer countries are blind to whether or not the outbreak is under control and as a result may prematurely reopen their economic markets causing the virus to spread further.
Unequal Access to Rapid COVID-19 Tests
The COVID pandemic has brutally shined a light on existing global inequalities. A New York Times article explained how developed countries are using their global wealth and power to demand first access to vital testing equipment. On the other hand, a poorer country like Yemen, whose health infrastructure has collapsed from the ongoing war, can only amass 31 tests per one million people, making it more challenging to contain the virus in a timely manner.
The WHO program, which is set to begin operations before the end of the year, tackles these inequalities by beginning its distribution in 20 lower-income countries in Africa, including Morocco, Kenya and Senegal. These new tests were also showcased at the White House, to demonstrate how straightforward and convenient testing could be. The patient simply swabs their nose and if any of the antigens found on the surface of the virus are present, then two blue lines will appear, indicating a positive result for COVID.
These new tests are of tremendous benefit to poorer countries that are lacking an established medical infrastructure, which can make testing with higher-grade genetic tests like PCR unfeasible. These PCR tests require several days of processing with specialty medical lab equipment, that many developing countries do not have access to on a wide enough scale to supplement their growing testing challenges.
An Alternative for Countries that Lack Adequate Health Infrastructure
Developed by Abbot and SD Biosensor, the tests provide accurate results within 15 to 30 minutes without the need for specialty lab equipment and chemicals, making them less costly and more portable than the previous PCR tests that required several days to process. The expansion of affordable testing will lower the high immortality rate of health workers in low-income countries. It will also help rapidly trace the areas in which the virus is spreading, enabling health workers to quarantine those infected and halt the spread.
The first and most vital step to slow down the spread of the coronavirus is to increase testing. By doing so, countries can target the areas where COVID is running wild and implement measures that will slow the spread. The WHO program is an excellent first step in achieving this goal on a more global scale. However, there is still a lot more that is needed in these countries. Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, is optimistic about the global work that can be done. He says that these tests are “proof that by working together at a massive global scale, we can develop and deploy a vital new tool to help contain and fight the pandemic….This is the power of global collaboration.”
– Maiya Falach