African countries are in dire need of coronavirus test kits as part of containment measures in the wake of the pandemic, but health authorities are unable to obtain the supplies needed, public health experts have said.

The coronavirus test shows a steep rise in cases, with over 85,000 tests done within three weeks, according to figures from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organization in its latest modeling predicts 29 million to 44 million Africans could be infected in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail, with 83,000 to 190,000 deaths.

Although mass testing is seen as a key component to slowing transmission, African health authorities are struggling to compete with richer, more powerful countries when it comes to buying the scarce testing material on the global market. 

There is a significant divergence in testing performance among African countries. In East Africa, while Uganda has conducted over 71,000 tests and Rwanda 48,200, neighboring Tanzania has conducted only 652 of which 509 have come back positive. President John Magufuli blamed the sharp rise of cases to faulty testing kits.

Magufuli said the testers had randomly obtained several non-human samples on animals and fruits which included a sheep, a goat, and pawpaw, and the results came out positive. This prompted him to believe some people who were tested positive for COVID-19 might not have contracted the virus. “I have always raised my suspicions about how our national lab has been conducting the COVID-19 cases,” he said.

So far, South Africa and Ghana have accounted for nearly half of all tests carried out on the continent. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million citizens, has conducted 40,043 tests. 

South Africa’s number of tests being carried out daily is around 16,000, with a total of over 439,500, considerably higher than other African countries. But Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has raised concerns over the country’s ability to scale up testing. “In relation to the issue of tests, I’ve called around both public and private laboratories – they are all suffering from the constraints of the availability of test kits.”

A senior research fellow at the Chatham House Centre for Global Health Security, Ngozi Erondu, said the infrastructure, with testing and tracing is an amazing experience to apply to COVID-19. But even with its relatively advanced infrastructure and laboratory capacity, South Africa has leveraged a network of over 200 laboratories.

According to the researcher, for Tanzania to reach one percent of its population, it would test 597,342 people. While the country was battling with HIV in 2019, it performed over 1.4 million HIV tests within a period of three months. Several African countries with HIV tested more than four percent of their citizens over the same period.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, has warned that there is a risk coronavirus could surge in the coming years. “COVID-19 could become a fixture in our lives for the next several years unless a proactive approach is taken by many governments in the region,” she said.

By Ahmed Iyanda.

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