As Covid-19 cases across the African continent surpass 1,000, exacerbating already frail health systems, we must learn from history and not let self-interest create division and thereby put peoples’ lives at risk. We have seen this before at the onset of the HIV epidemic in South Africa.
Antiretroviral treatments that saved lives in high-income countries were exorbitantly priced and out of reach for most in Africa. The result left millions dead and an economy in shambles. Only after national civil societies and international stakeholders fought together for access to affordable life-saving medication did this change years later.
As history has shown in times of crisis, individual interests must be put aside to support the collective health and wellbeing of humanity. This principle will manifest itself in different guises during the Covid-19 pandemic – from complying with (perhaps unwanted) advice on social distancing for the sake of the elderly and more vulnerable, to companies and governments prioritizing public health over profit.
Just as a focus on collective interest and global collaboration was needed thirty years ago to fight HIV/Aids, the world now needs to do the same to ensure that the tools to fight Covid-19 are effective, affordable and accessible for all. A partnership between the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal and a small UK biotech company called Mologic, is trying to make this a reality by developing point-of-need diagnostic tests that will be available at cost to people everywhere to fight the virus.
Mologic has created a technology platform that has been used to develop rapid tests for Ebola; now they have undergone laboratory validation, the tests have been sent to the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo for further testing in the field. Using that same platform, Mologic has now finalised a prototype – which is beginning independent assessment and validation this week – that could allow self-testing at home for Covid-19, producing a result in 10 minutes.
The key to making high quality rapid diagnostics affordable in Africa is an entity called diaTROPiX, which is a first of its kind, custom-built facility for epidemic-related innovation in Dakar, Senegal. The diaTROPiX unit is set to manufacture the tests, allowing high-quality diagnostics to be produced both locally and cost-effectively (about $1 each), guaranteeing access to the population in the most at-risk settings. This joint initiative is supported by four core partners (Fondation Mérieux, the Foundation for Innovative and New Diagnostics [FIND Dx], Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and Institut Pasteur de Dakar) as well as two technology transfer partners (Mologic and bioMérieux).
International collaboration like this will increase our chances of overcoming the many barriers that inevitably stand in the way of quickly developing reliable tools to combat Covid-19. For instance, to move the diagnostic prototype through the pipeline and into the hands of those that need it, specialist networks around the world are working together to validate the test and learn how it can be used most effectively.
These partners include the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in the United States, the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, the University of Malaya in Malaysia, the Institute for Health Science Research in Germany, the Trias i Pujol (IGTP) in Spain, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Brazil, and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and St Georges University London in London.
While these global efforts to build responsive and resilient diagnostic capacity are important for all countries, such efforts are particularly critical in Africa. Though it is too early to predict the virus’s trajectory on the continent, overcrowded African cities with higher rates of compromising health issues, such as HIV and malnutrition, will almost certainly pose challenges to containing or slowing down the virus. The ability to test cases early-on will be essential to overcoming such barriers.
When we look back on this pandemic, many will say our hyper-connected global world is what got us into this mess but, in reality, it is what will get us out of it. Not only is this globalisation necessary to create the tools needed to fight the pandemic but, as airlines cancel flights, countries seal borders and schools close, the global online world is vital to maintaining a sense of community, normalcy and sanity. This is not just a crutch for the times we live in, but an opportunity to recognize how humanity today can persevere and accomplish the seemingly impossible when we come together.
We must engage with our new reality and urge leaders to collaborate and leverage global networks at every turn. Only then will everyone, everywhere, have access to all the tools they need to beat this once-in-a-generation pandemic.
- Paul Davis is Mologic’s chief scientific officer and one of the inventors of the Clearblue pregnancy test. He leads the Centre for Advanced Rapid Diagnostics (CARD), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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