Nigerian officials posed for a photo earlier this month with a genetic research team in front of a 40-foot shipping container converted into a mobile COVID-19 testing lab. Since the pandemic began, the Nigerian Center for Disease Control has approved several private companies, including 54 Gene, to help increase the country’s testing capacity.
The coronavirus pandemic has spurred creative solutions across the continent. As of Friday, the African Union had recorded more than 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, about 39,500 recoveries, and 3,105 deaths. Responding to the outbreak has consumed the resources of many Western countries, leaving little support for African governments. Underfunded health agencies are increasingly forming partnerships with private companies and laboratories to create locally tailored responses to the outbreak.
To avoid the difficulty of shipping test samples to other locations for processing, 54 Gene stationed mobile labs in a few Nigerian states. Its lab in Kano state can process up to 1,000 tests a day. In March, 54 Gene also raised $500,000 to increase the country’s testing capacity and provide necessary protective equipment for healthcare workers.
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research joined with LifeBank, a Nigerian medical delivery company, to launch drive-thru testing centers in Lagos and Oyo states, as well. LifeBank expanded its emergency medical oxygen delivery and compiled a database of ventilators, respirators, and intensive care beds available in private health centers to streamline cooperation with government agencies.
“I didn’t have plans to do anything around COVID-19 when it first started, but I read too much about it and started having nightmares about ventilators and the virus,” LifeBank founder Temie Giwa-Tubosun told CNN. “The next day I called the team, and we got to work.”
In neighboring Ghana, California-based Zipline uses drones to deliver test samples from rural areas to laboratories in nearby cities. The drones cut transport time, which would normally require long drives over rural roads, to less than an hour, in some cases, according to Zipline.
In response to limited testing access in many countries, a Senegalese research lab has started trials of a $1 coronavirus testing kit that only takes about 10 minutes to determine results. The Institut Pasteur de Dakar partnered with the U.K. biotech firm Mologic to redesign a kit originally used for dengue fever. It includes a saliva-based test for virus antigens and a blood-based one for antibodies.
Senegal, a country of about 16 million, only has 50 available ventilators. Researchers in the country have figured out how to use 3D printers to make them for about $60. Ventilators cost about $16,000 each to import.
In Ethiopia, biomedical engineer Bilisumma Anbesse joined several other volunteers to repair and upgrade old ventilators as the nation struggles to compete with the high global demand for the equipment.
During a roundtable discussion involving African leaders on Wednesday, Tony Elumelu—a Nigerian philanthropist and chairman of the United Bank of Africa—said the pandemic offers an opportunity to “reset” Africa.
“If we have a Marshall Plan that mobilizes resources to address particular issues, then we can mitigate against this constant begging for assistance,” he said.