Covid tests that give results in 15 to 30 minutes are set to be rolled out across the globe, in a move that could save thousands of lives and slow the pandemic worldwide.
The rapid antigen tests, made by US company Abbott and South Korean company SD BioSensor, will be supplied to low and middle-income countries for a maximum of $5 (£3.90) each.
One of the tests has received emergency approval from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and it is likely the other will receive approval shortly. The fast but high-quality tests will enable the mass screening of health workers, who are dying disproportionately in low-income countries.
The Access to Covid tools initiative (ACT accelerator) was launched in March by the WHO, the European commission, the Gates Foundation and the French government. Wealthy countries that have signed up, including the UK, will also be able to order the tests.
Catharina Boehme, CEO of the non-profit Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (Find), a group involved in the initiative, said low and middle-income countries were a priority when it came to ordering the tests.
She said: ‘We see the pressure of supply building rapidly. That’s why we need this volume guarantee. We needed to secure volumes for low and middle-income countries, before all the other countries place their orders and the poor populations again lose out.
‘For us the message is about unprecedented collaboration. We are really able to show what can be achieved when the world and leading global health partners come together with a shared priority.’
The partnership’s other members are the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the Global Fund and Unitaid.
Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, said: ‘This is the ACT-Accelerator in action. It is proof that by working together at a massive global scale, we can develop and deploy a vital new tool to help contain and fight the pandemic.
‘This is not just a new test – it’s the money and the deployment plan to get it to where it’s needed, fast. This is the power of global collaboration.’
Other rapid antigen tests can be bought online, but they do not meet the WHO’s specifications and can be unreliable. In March, Spain had to return batches of tests purchased from unlicensed companies in China, saying they only correctly identified the virus 30%t of the time.
These companies, however, claim their tests are around 97% accurate, while Find estimates the accuracy is realistically between 80% and 90% – meaning most infections would be detected.
Mass testing is urgently needed in most low and middle-income countries. While North America tests 395 people per 100,000 population every day and Europe tests 243, Africa tests fewer than 16.
The ACT accelerator initiative also plans to bulk-buy and distribute covid drugs around the world, and share its global portfolio of vaccines when they find one that works.
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