BusinessDay

Nigeria cut out in investment shift to home-based COVID-19 test kits

Nigeria seems to be cut out in a world where countries with robust capacities for research and development are reaping the gains of shifting healthcare investment towards home-based COVID-19 diagnostics kits.

In addition to the missed opportunity for huge fund flows into COVID-19 vaccine production, diagnostics kits that deliver lab-quality results to the mobile device in about 20 minutes are springing up to fix the need for quick, accurate and personalised tests – the gains eluding Nigeria.

Google is for instance a leading client of Cue, an integrated care company in the US that supplies its employees with test kits with 98.7 percent accuracy and is usable at home without training.

The company has also worked with the US Department of Health and Human Services to deliver 6 million COVID-19 test kits and 30,000 readers.

The kit offers the equivalent of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result in a few minutes. All it takes is for a cartridge to be inserted, a sample collected and fixed to the reader, and the results delivered on the phone.

Cue’s COVID-19 test has emergency use authorisation (EUA) in the US for professional use at point-of-care and at-home use without a prescription. The test is also authorised for professional use in the European Union, Canada, and India (CDSCO).

Cue enjoys both institutional and individual patronage that is likely to promote its potential as a major substitute to PCR tests, considering the volume of demand for tests in countries experiencing huge waves.

The company has 49 customers, including the government, large employers, health systems, and doctor’s offices, with plans to sell tests directly to consumers on its website in the fourth quarter, Ayub Khattak, Cue’s co-founder said in a Forbes report.

Nigeria could have progressed to developing lab-quality tests with a short turnaround and made strides similar to Cue’s in neighbouring African countries.

The Nigeria Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) in 2020 developed the SARS COV-2 Isothermal Molecular Assay, a point of care test that was meant to expand testing from a few selected laboratories to several government hospitals.

Read also: Non-profit NSSF’s initiative delivers 1.6m COVID-19 vaccinations in 3 months

With initial 20 million funding by the Faith Foundation, the rapid test kit could help hospitals detect the status of patients within 40 minutes. But it failed to hatch the moment a partnering Australian firm withdrew.

Even hopes of getting indigenous partnership for mass production have remained hanging.

COVID-19 testing still involves a queue of samples slated for molecular analysis at government-run labs or coughing out N50,400 charges in private laboratories in a few hours.

Debo Odulana, founder of Doctoora, a platform that offers practitioners equipment for rent, says Nigeria is behind in such developments due to a lack of incentives for people to develop such initiatives.

He also identifies the lack of regulatory framework that manages clinical trials as a challenge for private investments to look in that direction.

“So if I have such a product, I have to get it through NAFDAC but there is no regulatory body that has been drawn up for this particular area, where there is the push. The earlier we can get it right, the better. Most people will not invest in something that the regulation is not clear,” Ogunlana told BusinessDay in an interview.

Cue estimates the broader COVID-19 point-of-care market to reach approximately $12 billion in 2021, according to Forbes. On average, the company manufactures around 43,000 Covid-19 test kits daily.

The growth in production has also yielded a massive investment in hiring talent. Cue went from 100 people in early 2020 to around 1,250 employees in 2021.

The company, founded in 2010, was originally focused on rapid portable flu tests and was testing Cue’s technology in clinical trials when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

It quickly adjusted operation to the Covid-19 test, receiving emergency use authorisation from the FDA for its point-of-care test in June 2020.

Analysts say without the policies to encourage such investments, Nigeria might continue to miss out.

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