Africa to Expand COVID-19 Testing as it Waits for Vaccines to Arrive
Health workers in Cape Town, South Africa, getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

As Africa waits for COVID-19 vaccines promised by the US and other countries to arrive, the continent’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) plans to scale up antigen testing to identify and address pandemic hotspots.

“We are only at 4% vaccination rate, which means we have to continue to advance basic public health tools at our disposition, including rapid antigen test scale-up and enhanced community work so that we can know exactly where the hotspots of this virus are and flush it out while waiting for vaccine coverage to increase,” said John Nkengasong, Africa CDC Director, late last week.

He added that Africa CDC and partners would be launching its “2.0 response plan” in the coming weeks that aimed at scaling up testing, and expanding the outreach of community health workers. 

“There can be no doubt we need to test at scale, and we need to decentralise testing and put it in the hands of our community health care workers,” added Nkengasong in an address to an international audience organised by the US Ambassador to the African Union and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

He added that, over the past 18 months, over 18,000 community health care workers had been deployed in 38 countries to conduct about 2.6 million household visits. They had also  conducted around 1.6 million tests to identify those who are infected, and their contacts.

Nkengasong described community health care workers as the “nexus for universal health coverage and health security”, essential to fight the current pandemic and to prepare for subsequent disease outbreaks.

Although there is an assumption that Africa has been comparatively less affected by COVID-19 infection than other regions, excess mortality figures of the few African countries that monitor these figures – notably Egypt and South Africa – indicate a huge under-estimation of the impact of the pandemic.

A recent comparison of World Bank regions put the Middle East and North Africa as the third-worst affected region in the world after Latin America and South Asia.

Meanwhile, Egypt outstrips a number of hard-hit countries including the US on excess mortality.

There has been an increase in demand for COVID-19 vaccines across Africa in the past few weeks – from Zimbabwe to Morocco, according to Nkengasong.

However, he acknowledged that in some countries, including Uganda, there had been a slowdown in demand.

“We will be looking at those countries to understand why the uptake has slowed, and what can we do with the community and religious leaders to improve uptake of vaccines, and create champions – sport, celebrities, and local musicians – to promote vaccines.

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