While countries across the world are battling with the coronavirus pandemic, some African countries, are also battling the outbreaks of deadlier hemorrhagic fever viruses: Lassa virus and Ebola virus.
With the global pandemic draining resources and attention, African countries are facing more challenges controlling outbreaks of these diseases that have been ravaging Africa countries for over 40 years.
This year, Nigeria recorded the highest Lassa fever outbreak in its history with an over 35% increase in cases from the previous year. Along with other West African countries including Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, Nigeria is again approaching another seasonal outbreak starting from December. Meanwhile, last month, the WHO raised an alarm that the response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the west of the DR Congo is underfunded and facing logistic challenges.
Just in time, a group of scientists from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the US have developed a point-of-care test (done at the time and place of care) for both the Lassa virus and Ebola virus that is accurate, fast, and cheap. The new test was reported to have reduced the cost of testing to less than $1 per sample. The test can be done quickly in any environment, as it requires minimal equipment that can be powered with solar or a small generator.
The test is based on SHERLOCK a new diagnostic that uses CRISPR technology to detect genetic fingerprints that indicate the presence of pathogens in a sample. It uses saliva or urine samples that are heated after collection in a chemical mixture to make the viruses inactive to avoid healthcare workers being infected during a test. This use of saliva or urine instead of blood makes the sample collection faster and sample.
The sample is then tested for viruses using a strip and the result read using a mobile app called HandLens. The mobile app developed by the scientists enables the user to read test strips by taking a picture of the strips using any smartphone or tablet which displays the test result in a simple graphical format.
This diagnostic which has been successfully tested in Nigeria and Sierra Leone will be a game-changer in Africa if effectively deployed as it can solve some of the key problems in the fight against Ebola and Lassa virus.
Currently, logistical challenges hinder responses to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DR Congo as the affected communities are in a remote and densely-forested area of the country. The Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based test currently being used to test for Lassa virus and Ebola virus requires advanced laboratory infrastructure, a cold chain, and expensive reagents. These are lacking in many African countries and as such the PCR-based test is not logistically viable and scalable across the continent.
Though this new diagnostic will enable countries to get Ebola and Lassa virus tests to more people, it may take a while before it can be deployed due to regulatory and production hurdles. Several point-of-care diagnostics for Covid -19 similar to the $1 test being developed by Senegalese scientists were found to give an unacceptable rate of false results.
Though the new Ebola and Lassa virus test is based on a different technology, the WHO and regulatory agencies are often cautious when dealing with a new point-of-care test. This may apply to the new virus tests considering that it is based on the first-ever CRISPR tool approved (Emergency Use Authorization) by the US Food and Drug Administration just four months ago for a coronavirus CRISPR test to be used during this pandemic.
But, if the Ebola and Lassa virus test is approved and mass-produced in Africa then local authorities, as well as patents, will be able to afford a test.
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