The tests, which look like a pregnancy test, with two blue lines displayed for positive, are read by a health worker. One test has received emergency approval from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the other is expected to get it shortly.
The quick and easy, but high-quality tests will allow mass screening of health workers, who are dying in disproportionate numbers in low-income countries.
Rich countries that have joined the Access to Covid tools initiative (ACT accelerator), such as the UK, will also be able to order the tests. The initiative was launched in March by the WHO, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation and the French government.
In return for a volume guarantee from the Gates Foundation, companies make 20% of their production available to low- and middle-income countries and 80% to the rest. Germany has already ordered 20m tests and France and Switzerland are following suit.
The UK government wants rapid viral tests, which were at the heart of the recently disclosed ‘moonshot’ proposals, but it is not clear whether they intend to purchase these tests. He has invested in British-made saliva tests as well as rapid antigen tests, both of which take around 90 minutes. Saliva tests are being tested in Salford and Southampton, while DnaNudge, which uses a swab read by a Nudgebox, is used in some NHS hospitals.
But the WHO-approved rapid antigenic tests are faster and easier, as well as cheaper, and could be used for screening in schools, universities and workplaces. Countries that can afford it could screen more generally. While the tests don’t detect all cases, they could allow many infectious people to be identified before they have symptoms and go into quarantine.
One of the tests, from the South Korean company SD BioSensor, has just been urgently approved by the WHO, while the other, from the American company Abbott, is expected to obtain it soon for a test that it manufactures in South Korea.
Catharina Boehme, CEO of the nonprofit Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (Find), a key player in the initiative, said she quickly placed bulk orders for the tests so that low- and middle-income countries were not not losers. the global rush for rapid tests, as they did when PCR testing came out. “We are seeing the supply pressure increase rapidly. That is why we need this volume guarantee. We needed to secure volumes for low- and middle-income countries, before all other countries placed their orders and poor people lost again.
“For us, the message is unprecedented collaboration. We are truly in a position to show what can be accomplished when the world and major global health partners come together around a common priority. “
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the Global Fund and Unitaid are also part of the partnership that struck this agreement.
Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund, said: “This is the ACT-Accelerator in action. It’s proof that by working together on a massive global scale, we can develop and deploy a vital new tool to help contain and combat the pandemic. It’s not just a new test – it’s the money and the deployment plan to get it where it’s needed, quickly. That’s the power of global collaboration. ”
The companies say their tests are around 97% accurate, but under optimal conditions. Find puts their sensitivity between 80% and 90% in real conditions. This would pick up most infections. There are currently relatively few tests in most low- and middle-income countries. While North America tests 395 people per 100,000 population daily, and Europe tests 243, Africa tests fewer than 16 – and most are in Morocco, Kenya and Senegal.
Rapid antigen tests are available for sale online, but these are the first to meet WHO specifications and some tests have failed. Spain had to send back two batches of rapid tests it bought from unlicensed Chinese companies in March because they were reportedly defective.
The ACT accelerator initiative is also working on the wholesale purchase and distribution of drugs to treat Covid-19 around the world – and will share its global vaccine portfolio when one is proven successful.