Some 120 million rapid diagnostic tests for coronavirus will be made available to low- and middle-income countries at a maximum of $5 each, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.
The wider availability of quick, reliable and inexpensive testing will help 133 countries to track infections and contain the spread, closing the gap with wealthy ones, it said.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the manufacturers Abbott and SD Biosensor had agreed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to "make 120 million of these new, highly portable and easy-to-use rapid Covid-19 diagnostic tests available over a period of six months".
Meanwhile, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, announced yesterday that up to 100 million additional doses of any eventual Covid-19 vaccines will be secured for delivery to poorer countries in 2021.
The announcement doubles the number of doses already secured from the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, by Gavi and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, following an initial agreement last month.
WHO chief told a news conference in Geneva the tests were currently priced at a maximum of $5 each but were expected to become cheaper.
"This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard-to-reach areas that do not have laboratory facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out tests," Tedros said.
"This is a vital addition to the testing capacity and especially important in areas of high transmission."
Catharina Boehme, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), a Geneva-based non-profit organisation in the project, said the deal was a "major milestone" as it was urgent to increase testing in poorer countries.
"It is our first line of defence, critical for countries to track, trace and isolate to stop the spread of the virus and to ensure that we are not flying blind," she said.
"We now have two high-quality tests which are the first in a series that are being developed and assessed by WHO for emergency use listing," she said.
The antigen tests - which don't require a laboratory - provide reliable results in just 15 minutes rather than hours or days and will help expand testing, Boehme said, adding: "The tests are as simple to use as pregnancy tests."
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria - another Geneva-based group - was providing an initial $50 million to the procurement fund and the first orders were expected to be placed this week, she said.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, said that more tests were undergoing evaluation and would come online, reports Reuters.
They would be particularly useful in remote settings and to investigate clusters quickly and bring them under control and in areas with widespread community transmission.
EXTRA VACCINE DOSES
Gavi stressed that the agreement "provides an option to secure additional doses, potentially several times the 200 million dose total," if needed, adding that the vaccines will have a ceiling price of $3 per dose.
Under the agreement, SII will receive upfront capital to scale up its manufacturing capacity to produce candidate vaccines being developed by AstraZeneca and by Novovax, reports AFP.
The idea is for the manufacturer to be able to begin rolling out millions of doses as soon as a vaccine, or vaccines, receive approval from regulators and the World Health Organization.
The doses will be distributed through Covax, the international coronavirus vaccine procurement pool created by the WHO to ensure equitable access to the jabs, "as early as the first half of 2021", the statement said.
"No country, rich or poor, should be left at the back of the queue when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines; this collaboration brings us another step closer to achieving this goal," Gavi chief Seth Berkley said in the statement.
Covax, which aims to lay its hands on two billion doses of safe and effective vaccines by the end of next year, has struggled to raise the funds needed to provide for the 92 low-income countries and other economies that quickly signed up.
WHO announced last week that more than 60 wealthy nations had joined, but a number were not yet on the list, including the United States, China and Russia.
Gavi also signed a memorandum of understanding with AstraZeneca back in June for access to another 300 million doses of its candidate vaccine, but those would be made available to all participants in Covax, not just the poorer countries.