Testing for COVID-19 is on the path of significant improvement in Africa following the outcome of a major breakthrough by a Nigerian laboratory set to deploy rapid diagnostic test kits, using paper strips, to trigger a regime of mass testing across the continent.
Epidemiologists prioritise testing as a key public health response in mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 along with other protocols like contact tracing, social distancing and the donning of face masks to control the aerosolization of droplets particularly from asymptomatic patients.
Christian Happi, a professor of molecular biology and genomics at African Centre for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in Redeemer’s University, Ede Osun State, developed the kits with his colleague of over two decades, Pardis Sabeti, who is a professor at the Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University in the United States.
Mr Happi came to public imagination in 2014 when, within four months of the Ebola outbreak, he helped confirm the diagnosis of the first case of the disease in Nigeria using advanced genomics and deep sequencing technology to advance swift diagnostic test, in five minutes, against the Ebola Virus Disease.
He also worked closely with health authorities for the successful containment of the recent Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. His novel five minutes rapid diagnosis test for Lassa fever has also received approval from the World Health Organisation and United States Food and Drug Administration.
Speaking on the new COVID-19 testing kit, Mr Happi told PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview from Ede that the kits were “about being rolled out.” As in past endeavors, national and regional health bodies are expected to partner with the research centre in the roll out.
“The good thing about this test is that it takes only thirty minutes and can be administered by anyone, anywhere, unlike the PCR test which takes about 7-8 hours and require the use of heavy machinery.”
The PCR (Polymerise Chain Reaction) test, hitherto the staple of the industry, is used to directly detect the presence of the virus’ nucleic acid, rather than the presence of the body’s immune response, or antibodies.
The new diagnostic test which also detects the virus’ nucleic acid like the PCR, offers more than time-saving to the patient, it offers significant out of pocket value to the patient. “While a PCR test costs $125 (N48,838), the paper strip test will cost only $3 (N1,163),” Mr Happi told PREMIUM TIMES, adding, “it is fast,reliable, affordable, and very comparable to PCR.”
Making witty concessions to their fictional fancies, the researchers named the paper strip test SHERLOCK after the famous fictional detective – Sherlock Holmes. Ms Sabeti and Mr Happi have been working closely for over two decades, first collaborating on the 2014, rapid diagnostic test for Ebola which got a WHO nod, and developing two other tests, one using the same approach used for Ebola but which is also working well for COVID-19.
“We are using the gene-editing technology to design a diagnostic that will recognise only COVID-19 sequence because we have done the sequencing, we identified areas in the genome of Covid-19 that are very peculiar to Covid-19, hence we designed a guide RNA (a molecule that helps the diagnostics recognise the specific sequence peculiar to Covid-19)” Mr Happi said.
According to Worldometer, Africa currently had a total of 308,190 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as at Wednesday; with South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria having the highest number of cases.
The director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), John Nkengasong, said in mid-May that only 1.3 million tests had been conducted across Africa, according to a BBC report.
“That translates to a continental average of one test per 1,000 people. There are however huge discrepancies between countries” the report said. Although the continent is ramping up its testing capacity, Nigeria, its most populous nation of over 200 million people, has tested only 108,548 people, as of Saturday.
This is below countries like Mauritius, Reunion, Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho and a host of other smaller countries.
Ms Sabeti, 44, is an Iranian-American computational biologist, medical geneticist and evolutionary geneticist. She developed a bioinformatic statistical method which identifies sections of the genome that have been subject to natural selection and an algorithm which explains the effects of genetics on the evolution of diseases.
Ms. Sabeti is also the lead singer and a writer for the rock band, Thousand Days.