Nearly 86% of all COVID-19 infections in Africa go undetected, with estimates suggesting that the actual number of infections on the continent could be as high as 59 million, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Thursday.
“With limited testing, we are still flying blind in far too many communities in Africa,” Matshidiso Moeti, regional director of the WHO in Africa, told a news conference on Thursday.
To get a more accurate number of infections and to better limit transmission, the UN plans to increase rapid diagnostic tests in eight African countries with the goal of testing 7 million people next year.
The initiative is a “radically” new approach that shifts from passive to active monitoring by working with communities, says Moeti. The fast tests are affordable, reliable and easy to use and give results within 15 minutes, she said. Another 360,000 cases are expected to be detected using the tests, of which about 75% are asymptomatic or mild, she said.
The initiative will be based on what is known as a ring strategy that has been used to eradicate smallpox and was carried out during Ebola outbreaks. It is called a ring method because it will target people living within a radius of 100 meters (110 yards) around newly confirmed cases.
Healthcare professionals welcomed the approach, saying it would help the continent get ahead of the pandemic rather than catch up. Since the outbreak began, Africa has registered more than 8 million covid-19 cases and 214,000 deaths, according to Africa’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rapid testing will also provide officials with data to avoid overwhelming health systems and implement restrictions that could be “catastrophic as far as economic consequences,” said Ngozi Erondu, a senior researcher at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute.
But the UN warned that with millions of undiscovered cases, Africa is in a hurry to speed up the continent’s access to vaccines, which have been slow to arrive. Africa’s vaccination levels are low.
Only 30% of the continent’s 54 countries have fully vaccinated 10% of their population, while many high-income countries have achieved vaccination levels of almost 90%, according to the UN
With the approach to end-of-year travel expected to cause an increase in falls, Moeti said African countries should prepare for a possible fourth wave. She urged rich countries to share a significant number of doses with Africa right now rather than wait until next year.