After winning praise for its aggressive program of virus testing, South Africa is facing a sudden crunch: a shortage of imported testing supplies, creating huge delays in test results.
In some parts of the country, tests for COVID-19 are now taking as long as 14 days to produce results, because of growing backlogs. By the time the tests are completed, the results can sometimes be almost useless, since those with the virus may have infected many other people by then.
It’s just one example of a worldwide problem. The global shortage is hampering the testing plans of many countries, from the United States to Singapore. But it is particularly damaging to African countries, which tend to be more dependent on imported supplies and often find themselves at the end of the queue.
Chikwe Ihekweazu, director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, recently went onto Twitter to plead for help in finding testing supplies, which he said he was “desperately” seeking. Ghana, meanwhile, has been rationing its supplies with an unorthodox system of “pool testing” – a single test on 10 combined samples, which then must be tested separately if there’s a positive result.
“The collapse of global co-operation and a failure of international solidarity have shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market,” said John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centre for Disease Control, in a recent commentary.
By late last week, according to a Reuters tally, African countries had conducted only 685 tests per million people – far below most other regions of the world. Canada’s current testing rate, by comparison, is about 30,000 tests per million people.
Nigeria, with a population of more than 200 million people, has conducted only about 27,000 tests in total since the beginning of the pandemic. Because of a lack of testing capacity, it was slow to detect a major outbreak of the virus in Kano, one of its biggest cities.
African countries have enough money to pay for chemical reagents and other testing supplies, but they are unable to obtain them, Dr. Nkengasong said.
“Global protectionism has prevailed, with more than 70 countries imposing restrictions on the export of medical materials,” he said.
He warned of the potential consequences. “No country can securely eliminate COVID-19 – or its devastating economic domino effects – if the disease becomes rampant across a continent of 1.3 billion people.”
South Africa has conducted 356,000 tests, more than any other African country – partly by deploying 30,000 health workers to search for potential cases in a widely praised door-to-door screening program. But the laboratory backlogs are making it increasingly difficult to trace the contacts of those who test positive, jeopardizing the country’s strategy, according to two South African scientists, Marc Mendelson and Shabir Madhi, in a report this week.
In Western Cape province, where about half of South Africa’s cases have been recorded, Premier Alan Winde says he has “real concern” at the growing backlog of tests at labs. “Extra capacity is urgently needed to clear the backlog and to ensure a quicker turnaround time for test results,” he said in a statement on the weekend.
Some South Africans have complained that they were pressed into returning to work at supermarkets or factories during the lengthy wait for their test results, only to discover later that they had tested positive.
“Even where there is enough money, many African health authorities are unable to obtain the supplies needed as geopolitically powerful countries mobilize economic, political and strategic power to procure stocks,” a team of researchers said in a commentary in the British medical journal The Lancet last week.
“Health officials report procurements have been unsuccessful because supplies have already been purchased for use in North America and Europe,” the commentary said.
“Every life has equal worth. Yet global allocation of testing and other resources currently means that some are forced to wait, while those ahead in the global procurement line take precedence.”
Africa has been obtaining its testing kits from a variety of sources, including donations from a foundation headed by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma. But the flow of supplies is often haphazard and opaque.
“There has been little notice in some cases to countries on equipment arriving, what is arriving and what quantities, making it very difficult for those running low on supplies to plan in advance,” said Kate Dooley, regional director for West Africa at the London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
“Understandably, some governments who are facing testing supplies shortages are protective of that information while they are procuring additional supplies, lest it contribute to fear about a lack of preparedness,” she told The Globe and Mail.
To reduce Africa’s dependence on imports, there are plans to produce millions of test kits in Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Morocco. But this will take several months and could still fall short. The United Nations has estimated that Africa will need tens of millions of tests.
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