Uganda launches COVID-19 rapid test kit, eyes Africa market

KAMPALA, UGANDA - MARCH 10: A healthcare professional is vaccinated against COVID-19 on March 10, 2021 in Kampala, Uganda. Uganda began phase one of COVID-19 vaccinations today after receiving their first batch of 864,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax) facility on Sunday. The first round will primarily vaccinate the most at-risk populations, such as frontline health workers, teachers and the elderly. Uganda has reported 40,490 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 334 deaths as of March 9. (Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)
KAMPALA, UGANDA – MARCH 10: A healthcare professional is vaccinated against COVID-19 on March 10, 2021 in Kampala, Uganda. (Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)

Uganda on Wednesday launched a rapid COVID-19 antibody test that developers hope to market in sub-Saharan Africa, where the laboratory infrastructure needed for extensive novel coronavirus testing is thin.

The test, which requires a finger prick to draw blood, was developed by a team at Makerere, Uganda’s oldest public university, with partial funding from the French embassy.

The East African country has long experience of infectious diseases like HIV and Ebola which it has drawn on to develop diagnostics expertise.

“This is a point-of-care test that can be used within equatorial Africa village settings, remote areas where there’s no laboratory, there’s no electricity, there’s no expert,” said Misaki Wayengera, a researcher at Makerere’s Department of Pathology.

“We’ve had a history of developing rapid tests for infectious diseases…So when COVID came we were like, ‘OK, we have the skills, why don’t we do this’,” Wayengera, who also helped to invent a rapid test for Ebola.

The kits work by detecting two antibodies, immunoglobulin M (IgM) and immunoglobulin G (IgG), triggered when someone is infected with coronavirus, Wayengera told Reuters before the launch at Mulago, Uganda’s national referral hospital.

Makerere partnered with local firm Astel Diagnostics Uganda, a World Health Organisation-certified manufacturer, to make an initial batch of 2,400 tests. Wayengera said they are in talks with bigger investors about larger commercial production.

The kit, which has been approved by Uganda’s state-run National Drugs Authority, has an accuracy rate of 70%, he said, but researchers hope eventually to raise that to 90%.

Although rapid testing is seen as key to combating COVID-19, poor countries like Uganda have struggled to find a cheap and easily available point-of-care diagnostic tool for mass testing.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Uganda has been kept relatively mild, with only about 40,600 cases in total and 334 deaths.

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