BusinessDay

Nigeria hangs on to fading PCR test as countries ease travel

Nigeria is hanging on to a fast-fading travel rule that subjects travellers to one of the costliest COVID-19 tests in Africa, despite an increasing shift to accepting vaccination proof as a pandemic clearance for travellers.

The travel protocol set by the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 for all returning travellers to Nigeria insists that a polymerase chain reaction (PCR test) must be undertaken 48 hours before the travel date and the result must be negative.

It also requires that a prepayment to repeat the PCR test after arrival must be done via the Nigeria International Travel Portal (NITP), bringing the total cost of testing to at least N100, 000.

Nigerians facing the brunt of this regulation have been clamouring for a review that makes full vaccination against the COVID-19 virus count for more, especially in light of the steep decline in infection rates since the start of the year and a gradual rise in vaccination coverage.

There are concerns that Nigerians would be stuck with an exorbitant travel rule when countries that have recorded far more infections and deaths from the pandemic are discarding the requirement for PCR in the bid to ease travel and finally set their economy on the path of full recovery.

For instance, the second most visited country by Nigerians; accounting for 14 percent of outbound travel according to Statista, a data consulting firm will scrap all remaining international travel restrictions for travellers by Thursday, March 18, including PCR tests.

Although over half a million tested positive for the virus in the last week, with 744 deaths recorded, it is a huge decline from the rate of infection that ravaged the country as of December. The UK government is relying largely on its growing immunity level, having fully vaccinated 49.2 million and administered booster shots to more than 38.5 million.

From recording 536 daily infections as of January 1, Nigeria has seen cases drop to as low as 247 at the end of January, less than 100 in February and 91 cases as of Thursday.

Read also: South Africa, India, EU, US reach compromise on COVID vaccine IP waiver

Saudi Arabia has dropped the requirement for travellers to present a negative PCR or rapid antigen test on arrival and people entering the country no longer have to quarantine.

The Saudi ministry of interior requires all persons in Saudi Arabia to show proof of vaccination by a ministry of health-approved vaccine to enter all government and private establishments, as well as to use public transportation and air travel.

Egypt now allows travellers who have taken full doses of approved novel coronavirus vaccines to enter without taking a PCR test. Travellers only need to present QR-coded certificates indicating they have received their full doses of one of six COVID-19 vaccines approved by Egypt and the WHO at least two weeks before their arrival.

Nigeria, like Ghana and South Africa among others, are still requesting, mounting hurdles for travellers, even though rates of testing vary.

“Watch Nigeria milk the PCR test thing for as long as possible. Countries that were hit hard have reduced the price of testing significantly and some are removing testing and quarantine completely as it no longer makes a difference but just a business venture as it stands now,” Adesoji, a Twitter user groaned via the handle @AdesojiMinkail on Thursday.

Describing it as an unnecessary burden compounding the woes of inflationary issues and rising cost of living, Oluwaseun, another user with the handle @OluwaseunP said “nobody is talking about it; but it makes no sense that Nigeria has not relaxed its COVID-19 travel requirements or cost of PCR test. Clearly, this isn’t about public health anymore. It’s a disgraceful profit-making scheme. @NCDCgov @NigeriaGov have to review this!”

Lilac butterfly, @papillon_lilas_ tweeting at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control asked “why do I still have to pay for a COVID-19 test when coming back to Nigeria? First, I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, and I’ll arrive with a negative PCR test as well.”

BusinessDay’s effort to get a response from Boss Mustapha, chairman of the PSC and secretary to the government of the federation (SGF) did not yield results. The spokesman of the SGF said the committee was yet to convene on the issue.

Unfairly Priced

On average, testing fees in Ghana range from $59 to $72 or N24, 559 to N29, 970, data gleaned from the website of the US Embassy in Ghana shows. Expedited processing is available for an additional fee, typically ranging from $85-$98 GHC in total, (N35,382 to N40,943).

In South Africa, PCR tests generally cost in the region of N23, 664 ($56), with prices varying depending on the test centre, according to the South Africa Visa information website. The pricing which was perceived as unfair charges from clinical laboratories generated protests that landed in a court challenge.

Government agencies in the country are establishing what they view as fair pricing for private COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid antigen tests, following a formal complaint by the Council for Medical Schemes which alleged the private pathology labs were “supplying” COVID-19 PCR tests at “unfairly inflated, exorbitant, and unjustifiable” prices, Daily Maverick reported.

The Competition Commission, an organisation charged with reviewing and acting on business practices in South Africa in a release in December said it had reached a “ground-breaking agreement” with two private laboratories including Ampath and Lancet, to reduce their COVID-19 PCR test prices from 850 South African rand ($56) to R500 ($33).

Nigeria’s PCR test rate was pegged at N50, 400 or $121, backed by the Presidential Steering Committee when private labs were brought into the testing scheme to ramp up the country’s capacity.

The Lagos State government cut the cost by 10.2 percent to N45,250 or $108 in accredited private laboratories, after more than a year of charging one of the costliest rates in Africa.

But what many Nigerians want is for the country to phase out PCR testing and accept proof of vaccination instead.

After another commission review, PathCare, Lancet, and Ampath agreed to reduce prices for rapid antigen tests to a maximum of R150 or $9.74.

Ayoade Alakija, co-chair, African Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance (AVDA) said “it’s a scam. The entire thing is a criminal enterprise and should be exposed. Diagnostics tests to enter a country/state where the government officials have interests in Dx test centres. PCR tests with no reagents? NCDC and MOH should be investigated. It is a SCAM. Period”.

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