World Health Organization Aims To Roll Out 120 Million COVID-19 Rapid Tests in Lower Income Countries – As COVID-19 Deaths Cross The 1 Million Mark
Speakers at the WHO Press Briefing 27 September

Some 120 million COVID-19 rapid diagnostic tests will be made available to low and middle-income countries through the World Health Organization-hosted ACT Accelerator, an initiative to scale up COVID-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines.

The WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement just before the world crossed the 1 million mark for deaths from the novel coronavirus, saying in a statement Tuesday, “It is never too late to turn things around.”.

The rollout of the rapid tests follows on WHO’s first listing of a rapid COVID-19 diagnostic antigen test last week for emergency use by global health procurement agencies. The test can offer reliable results in approximately 15 to 17 minutes, as compared to the hours or days required to process a traditional PCR test for COVID-19.

And the tool will help rapidly scale up testing in low-resource or rural settings, which often do not have access to labs that are required to process traditional COVID-19 tests. The new rapid test is produced by the Republic of Korean company SD Biosensor, and allows the diagnosis of COVID-19 on the spot, without the need to wait for a laboratory analysis.  A second test, by the United States-based firm, Abbott Laboratories, is due to be added to the list, said a WHO press release that accompanied the announcement.

“This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard to reach areas that do not have lab facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out [traditional COVID-19] PCR tests. This is a vital addition to their testing capacity and especially important in areas of high transmission,”  Dr Tedros said at a WHO press briefing Monday.

High-income countries are conducting 292 tests per day per 100,000 people, according to Peter Sands, CEO of the Global Fund, a partner of the ACT Accelerator’s diagnostics pillar. However, testing is lagging in middle- and low-income countries, which are testing at less than half the rate, if that.  In low-income countries, the average testing rate is merely 14 tests per day per 100,000 people.

“Testing is a critical cornerstone of the COVID-19 response, enabling countries to trace and contain the virus now, and to prepare for the roll-out of vaccines once available,” said the WHO press release. “Effective testing strategies rely on a portfolio of test types that can be used in different settings and situations. While molecular tests started to be rolled out within a month of the virus being sequenced, these tests are mainly laboratory based, relying on infrastructure and trained personnel to conduct them. Rapid tests to detect the presence of the virus at the point of care, which are faster and cheaper, are a vital addition to the testing arsenal needed to contain and fight COVID-19.”

World crosses 1 million mark for COVID-19 deaths

The ACT Accelerator has agreed to purchase 220 million tests from manufacturers whose tests have been listed by WHO as reliable, for distribution in low and middle income countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has agreed to help finance the procurement of 120 million tests, but more money is required to fund the procurement of the remaining 100 million. The tests are currently priced at US $5, which is already significantly lower than the price of a traditional PCR test.  The Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and Malaria announced it would be contributing US$ 50 million to kickstart test procurement already this week.

However, US $1.7 billion in funding is still required to before the end of the year to ensure that all tests can be distributed to countries in need, according to Catharina Boehme, CEO of the Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), a non-profit agency that is a co-convener of the ACT Accelerator’s diagnostics pillar. Some US $650 million of the required funds will be used help finance the roll-out and distribution of tests in countries.

The first tests will be ordered as early as this week, and will be rolled out in up to 20 African countries by the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and its partners in October, WHO said.

World Crosses Somber Milestone of 1 million COVID-19 Deaths 

Commenting Tuesday on the milestone 1 million deaths from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have now occurred, the WHO Director General cast a hopeful gaze across  those countries that have outperformed in terms of containment, setting examples for others.

Countries that applied an “all-of-government and all-of-society approach”  have succeeded to contain virus outbreaks before they got out of hand, he added, citing Thailand, Uruguay, Pakistan, New Zealand and others as among the success stories – along with countries such as Italy that were hit hard in the first wave, but eventually fought the virus back.

“Learning from the Wuhan experience, Italy put strong measures in place and was able to reduce transmission and save many thousands of lives,” he said. “National unity and solidarity, combined with the dedication and sacrifice of health workers, and the engagement of the Italian people helped bring the outbreak under control.

“Uruguay has reported the lowest number of cases and deaths in Latin America, both in total and on a per capita basis. This is not an accident. Uruguay has one of the most robust and resilient health systems in Latin America, with sustainable investment based on political consensus on the importance of investing in public health.

“Pakistan deployed the infrastructure built up over many years for polio to combat COVID-19. Community health workers who have been trained to go door-to-door vaccinating children against polio have been redeployed and utilized for surveillance, contact tracing and care. This has both suppressed the virus and, as the country stabilizes, the economy is also now picking up once again. Reinforcing the lesson that the choice is not between controlling the virus or saving the economy; the two go hand-in-hand.

“Informed by the best available scientific advice, and a trained and committed community health workforce, Thai authorities acted decisively to suppress the virus, to build trust and to increase public confidence.

“There are many other examples including Cambodia, Mongolia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain, Vietnam and more. Many of these countries learnt lessons from previous disease outbreaks of SARS, MERS, measles, polio, Ebola and flu to hone their health system and respond to this new pathogen,” he said. “No matter where there is an outbreak it is never too late to turn things around.”

He underlined that the four essential steps to containing the virus, include:

  • Preventing amplifying events;
  • Reducing deaths by protecting vulnerable groups, such as older people, those with underlying conditions and health workers;
  • Public compliance with mask etiquette, hand hygiene and social distancing, while avoidance of the “three Cs” – closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.
  • Government actions to find, isolate, test and care for cases, as well as tracing and quarantining contacts.
Scientifc Collaboration ‘Unprecedented’; But Money Needed Along with ‘Words Of Solidarity’, Says Wellcome Trust

Dr Tedros also lauded the unprecedented scientific “Just nine months on from the virus first being identified, some of the best scientists in the world have collectively developed tests to diagnose cases, identified treatments like corticosteroids to reduce mortality in the most severe cases of COVID-19, and produced vaccine candidates that are now in final phase three trials,” Dr Tedros said.

At the same time, Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar cast a more sober note, saying that the world remains far short of the US$ 35 billion needed to finance desperately needed tests, treatments and vaccines.

“Today, the world has passed a devastating milestone: 1 million recorded deaths from covid-19. In reality, the unrecorded total is much higher,” said Farrar in a statement.  “We must not forget that this pandemic is still accelerating and shows no signs of slowing down.

“The ACT-Accelerator urgently needs $35 billion to develop and provide tests, treatments and vaccines for the world and to have the health systems to deliver them. In the last week, the UK & Canadian Governments have stepped up and committed significant amounts. We urge global leaders to delay no longer and join them. Every day matters.

“This needs more than warm words of solidarity. This needs a moment of visionary, historic, political and financial leadership. Only when we have tools to detect, treat and prevent it everywhere, will we be able to stop this pandemic and therefore save lives, give children the education they deserve and restart all our economies.”

Updated 29.09.2020

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