There are times when life teaches us what is truly valuable. Like coming out intact on the other side of a pandemic where phrases such as “Happy Survival” become the norm.
This phrase couldn’t ring truer two years down the road since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And Africa’s Medtech industry has not lacked its own fair share of innovators that have stood up to the challenge of the pandemic. Among the notable ones is Cape Town’s Medical Diagnostech, which produced Africa’s first-ever COVID-19 antigen test kit in 2021.
The developer and manufacturer took 18 months to develop the test kit, not because of profit, but with certain inestimable values in mind—to play an invaluable role in saving lives by making testing accessible. Recall that test kits were in particularly short supply in the early months of the pandemic, all around the world, but particularly in Africa. What a grand lesson that was on the value of home-grown solutions; and Medical Diagnostech proved equal to the challenge.
It was not a simple journey for the developer. Medical Diagnostech COO, Lyndon Mungur, explained in a podcast with Hervé Mwamba that first, they had to understand the virus and how it works in the human body so they could determine which biomolecules to target. “We also had to work out a way to get the raw materials that we needed, especially antibodies,” he says. “We also needed some specialized personnel.” With that in place, they were able to start developing the test kit.
The approval of the antigen test kit by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) in December 2021 added one more much-needed weapon to the arsenal to help win the war against the pandemic.
How it Works
PCR tests and antigen tests work differently; each one essentially picking up on something different to determine whether your result is negative, or whether you are positive for the virus. PCR tests give results by identifying genetic material from the virus, while the antigen test looks for molecules called antigens on the surface of the virus.
So is there any truth to the common belief that PCR tests are more accurate for detecting the virus than antigen tests?
There is some truth to this. Positive results from antigen tests are highly accurate, but the negative results are less accurate. This means that you can be confident your positive result is correct but not as confident that your negative result is correct if you take an antigen test. Mungur explains that the test looks fairly similar to a pregnancy test kit, with the addition of a nasal swab. “ When you see lines appear you might absolutely report whether you're negative or positive.,” he says. “If two lines come up it means it's positive. If one line comes up it means it's negative.”
One thing that the antigen test has, hands down, over the PCR test, is speed. While the PCR test is done in a lab and results take hours, antigen test results are ready within about 15 minutes, right at the site where the sample is taken. The importance of fast results, particularly during a pandemic, is momentous. It can mean the difference between stopping the virus in its tracks and allowing it to keep spreading for a few more hours while we wait for results. The rapid results are particularly valuable in settings where people live in communities, such as correctional facilities, school dormitories and care homes.
Rapid results have the added value of convenience, for instance in situations where a negative test result is required for access to public places such as restaurants, malls or movie theatres. It’s a simple matter to get the test done on the way there and receive the results in 15 minutes. In South Africa and several other African countries, regulations do not currently allow for testing by non-medical personnel. This means that at-home testing is not yet a possibility.
A win for Africa
What’s the big deal about an antigen test developed in Africa? Well, we wrote in a previous article about the importance of having devices that are most appropriate for the continent’s medical needs, making them available and affordable, and setting up a system to regulate their quality. The most obvious benefit of a home-grown antigen test for Africa is that it makes testing more affordable and therefore more accessible. In South Africa, Medical Diagnostech is offering its test kit to the market at R50 (about $3.25). Compare this to the cost of a PCR test at about R500, or even that of an imported antigen test at about R185. The low cost will benefit not just South Africa but he rest of the continent where it will soon be available.
An accessible test is tremendously important because more testing, gives us the information we need to take preventive measures to contain the virus. Antigen tests may have gotten a bad rap in the beginning, Mungur explains, because there were so many tests out there that were not just expensive, but were also just not that sensitive, and therefore not so accurate. Hopefully Medical Diagnostech’s kit will change this perception.
From every angle, Medical Diagnostech’s antigen test is a beautiful story; a story about Africa’s first steps towards self-sufficiency; steps that will encourages other innovators across the continent to take many little, and eventually, big strides towards enhancing healthcare through medtech innovation.