A plan to roll out 120 million rapid-diagnostic tests for coronavirus to help lower and middle-income countries make up ground in a testing gap with richer countries has been agreed.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and leading partners are to go ahead with the project despite it not being fully funded yet.
An emergency-use listing was issued by the WHO last week for the antigen-based rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tests which cost $5 (£3.90) each.
The programme initially requires $600m (£467m) and is to get started as early as next month to provide better access to areas where it is harder to reach with PCR tests that are often used in wealthier nations.
The rapid tests look for antigens, or proteins found on the surface of the virus. They are generally considered less accurate – though much faster – than higher-grade genetic tests, known as PCR tests.
PCR tests require processing with specialised lab equipment and chemicals. Typically that turnaround takes several days to deliver results to patients.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “These tests provide reliable results in approximately 15 to 30 minutes, rather than hours or days, at a lower price with less sophisticated equipment.
“This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard-to-reach areas that do not have lab facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out PCR tests.
“We have an agreement, we have seed funding and now we need the full amount of funds to buy these tests.”
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Catharina Boehme, chief executive of a non-profit group called the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, said the rollout would be in 20 countries in Africa, and would rely on support of groups including the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
She said the diagnostic tests will be provided by SD Biosensor and Abbott.
Rolling out testing in poorer countries aims to help healthcare workers get a better grip on where the virus is circulating, in the hope of following up with containment and other measures to stop it.