“People will be able to do it themselves,” said Amadou Sall, the institute’s director in the capital, Dakar.
More than 200 companies are working to develop similarly speedy tests, according to the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics in Geneva, which is tracking progress. None has met the international standard of shelf life and accuracy yet.
Today the process takes hours in sophisticated labs, and wait times are stretching across the globe, alarming health authorities.
“We have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, which is the backbone of the response,” WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week. “We have a simple message for all countries: Test, test, test.”
The partnership between the Pasteur Institute — a white, Art Deco-style building on the sea — and Mologic — an English firm founded by the father of the ClearBlue pregnancy test — began about a year ago.
Researchers initially focused on making home tests for dengue fever, among other afflictions, when the number of coronavirus diagnoses started mounting.
The Senegalese team, which helped the WHO through the region’s Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2016, was one of the first two labs on the continent to be able to identify the coronavirus, fielding samples from other countries. (Forty-three of Africa’s 54 nations now have diagnostic tools.)
The priority of those early days: Catch and contain, said Sall, the director, because an outbreak could devastate dozens of cash-strapped nations.
The virologists knew, however, that having just a few labs per country wasn’t enough to shield rural communities, where electricity is often scarce. They needed something that could work through a power cut.
Enter the pregnancy-test model. It’s already used in malaria and HIV kits worldwide: Patients drop blood or saliva onto the devices and wait for a bold line to appear.
Between manufacturing facilities in Dakar and the United Kingdom, the team expects to produce 8 million tests annually, said Joe Fitchett, Mologic’s medical director, and sell them for $1 each to governments and global disease-fighting bodies.
“The idea,” he said, “is we make it available as widely as possible.”
They can sell the devices at cost, Fitchett added, because they’re supported by hefty grants from the British government and the Gates Foundation.
Meanwhile in Denver, Josh Disbrow, chief executive at Aytu BioScience, said his pharmaceutical firm is weeks away, pending federal approval, from releasing a blood-prick test that could deliver feedback in as little as two minutes.
The product was developed in China, he said.
“It came together fairly quickly,” Disbrow added, “as everything now is.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 195,000 people in at least 140 countries since it emerged late last year in China, thrusting millions into lockdown and wreaking havoc on the global economy.
African leaders are scrambling to quash the spread, but the number of confirmed cases on the continent has jumped in recent weeks.
Senegal has 136 beds in two cities for people with coronavirus, health officials say, and is rushing to add more at military field hospitals. (As of Tuesday, the nation had confirmed 31 cases.)
Schools have closed. Businesses have shuttered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged Americans to cancel large gatherings, including weddings and funerals, for the next eight weeks.
The United States has faced harsh criticism for diagnosis delays in the world’s richest country.
“The bottom line is that we need more tests,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said last week, pounding the lectern on live television.