A 10-minute coronavirus test that costs less than $1 to produce is being rushed into testing by a Senegalese research institute working with a British company, offering a potential lifesaver for countries battling to contain the pandemic.
The prototype being produced by Dakar-based diaTropix and Mologic of the UK, which uses technology similar to a home pregnancy kit, will begin a validation process on Thursday and the test could be rolled out by June if the trials are successful.
While the pocket-sized test would be made widely available, it is aimed at stemming the spread of the virus in Africa in particular. Only about 2,400 virus cases have been reported across Africa, but many health experts believe the continent’s fragile health systems could leave it particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.
Joe Fitchett, Mologic medical director, said that while many companies were working on virus diagnostics, “the difference we are trying to make here is to ensure this is not a commercial opportunity.
“This will be made available at cost of goods to low-income settings,” he said. “That’s a fundamental difference that most others will not be doing.”
DiaTropix, which is run by leading virologist Amadou Sall, is affiliated with Dakar’s Institut Pasteur, which created one of the world’s first yellow fever vaccines. Along with Mologic, it has the capacity to produce 8m of the new tests a year and plans to offer them directly to governments, the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.
The 10-minute test, to be trialled at laboratories in Senegal, the UK as well as the Chinese city of Wuhan where the pandemic began, employs a saliva-based virus antigen test and a blood-based antibody test. It produces an easily readable result — a line that appears if the patient tests positive.
Mr Fitchett conceded that the trade-off for increased speed, low cost and ease of use would probably be a drop in a performance but said that it would be important to determine whether the drop was meaningful, which was something the prototype testing process would help them understand.
“You can test for pregnancy in the lab using blood samples but the drop in performance by using a urine dip home pregnancy test is considered a trade-off worth having for all the other benefits,” he said.
Current testing methods use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which deploys primers that bind exactly to each genetic sequence and must be done in sophisticated laboratories. Results take several hours and cost hundreds of dollars, putting them out of reach of many developing countries.
Other diagnostic companies are focusing on how to automate the process of PCR lab tests. The prices range between $40 and $100 in the US, and also involve some level of accuracy sacrificed for speed.
Testing is widely seen as the key to containing outbreaks, particularly in countries with limited healthcare systems. Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire, this week sent more than 1m test kits to Africa.
The Ethiopia-based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the continent’s leading disease agency that was set up in response to the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, plans to distribute 200,000 test kits.