GENEVA/LONDON, (REUTERS, AFP) - About 120 million rapid diagnostic tests for the coronavirus will be made available to low- and middle-income countries at a maximum cost of US$5 (S$6.90) each, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.
The wider availability of quick, reliable and inexpensive tests will help 133 countries track cases and contain the spread, closing the gap with wealthy ones, it said.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday (Sept 28) said Abbott and SD Biosensor had agreed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “make 120 million of these new, highly portable and easy-to-use rapid Covid-19 diagnostic tests available over a period of six months”.
He told a news conference in Geneva that the tests were priced at a maximum of US$5 each, but were expected to become cheaper.
“We have an agreement, we have seed funding and now we need the full amount of funds to buy these tests,” Dr Tedros said.
“This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard-to-reach areas that do not have laboratory facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out tests.
“This is a vital addition to the testing capacity and especially important in areas of high transmission.”
Dr Catharina Boehme, chief executive of the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, a Geneva-based non-profit organisation in the project, said the deal was a major milestone as it was urgent to increase testing in poorer countries.
“It is our first line of defence, critical for countries to track, trace and isolate to stop the spread of the virus and to ensure that we are not flying blind,” she said.
“We now have two high-quality tests which are the first in a series that are being developed and assessed by WHO for emergency use listing,” Dr Boehme added.
Although the quick tests in the US$600 million scheme are not as reliable as the regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) nasal swab tests, they are far faster, cheaper and easier to carry out.
The tests – which do not require a laboratory – provide reliable results in just 15 minutes rather than hours or days, and will help expand testing, Dr Boehme said, adding that “the tests are as simple to use as pregnancy tests”.
The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria – another Geneva-based group – was providing an initial US$50 million to the procurement fund, she said.
Global Fund executive director Peter Sands said the quick tests were no silver bullet, but were a hugely valuable complement to PCR tests.
“Although they are a bit less accurate, they’re much faster, cheaper and don’t require a lab,” he said. “This will enable low- and middle-income countries to begin to close the dramatic gap in testing.”
Mr Sands said that high-income countries now conduct 292 tests a day for every 100,000 people, upper-middle-income countries 77, lower-middle-income countries 61, and low-income countries 14.
He said that if the poorest countries were testing at the same rate as the richest, 120 million tests would not last two weeks.
The antigen tests could be used where PCR tests are unavailable or to quickly test contacts where a PCR test has confirmed a case, and in places with widespread community transmission.
The first orders were going in this week, Mr Sands added.
The 120 million tests, being produced by US multinational Abbott and South Korea-based SD BioSensor, reflect 20 per cent of the companies’ manufacturing capacity. The other 80 per cent remains available for procurement.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said that more tests were undergoing evaluation and would come online.
They would be particularly useful in remote settings and to investigate clusters quickly and bring them under control, as well as in areas with widespread community transmission.
“This will be really, really helpful for communities and countries to be able to know where is the virus and who is infected with the virus,” she said.