GENEVA –- A set of agreements to make affordable, high-quality COVID-19 antigen rapid tests available to low- and middle-income countries have been announced by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Organizations involved in the milestone agreement include the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), the Global Fund, Unitaid, and WHO.

As part of this comprehensive, end-to-end effort, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has executed separate volume guarantee agreements with rapid diagnostic test (RDT) producers Abbott and SD Biosensor. These two arrangements will make available to LMICs 120 million antigen rapid diagnostic tests (Ag RDTs) – priced at a maximum of US$5 per unit – over a period of six months.

These tests provide results in 15–30 minutes, rather than hours or days, and will enable expansion of testing, particularly in countries that do not have extensive laboratory facilities or trained health workers to implement molecular (polymerase-chain reaction or PCR) tests.

The tests developed by Abbott and SD Biosensor are highly portable, reliable, and easy to administer, making testing possible in near-person, decentralized healthcare settings.

Both companies’ tests are faster and cheaper than laboratory-based tests, enabling countries to increase the pace of testing, tracing and treating people for COVID-19 at the point of care particularly in areas with under-resourced health systems. A number of other Ag RDTs are at various stages of development and assessment.

To scale up the Ag RDTs, the Global Fund announced that it has made available an initial US$50 million from its COVID-19 Response Mechanism to enable countries to purchase at least 10 million of the new rapid tests for LMICs at the guaranteed price, with the first orders expected to be placed this week through the Global Fund’s pooled procurement mechanism.

Unitaid and Africa CDC will combine resources to initiate the roll out of these tests in up to 20 countries in Africa starting in October. Testing is a critical cornerstone of the COVID-19 response, enabling countries to trace and contain the virus now, and to prepare for the roll-out of vaccines once available.

Effective testing strategies rely on a portfolio of test types that can be used in different settings and situations. While molecular tests started to be rolled out within a month of the virus being sequenced, these tests are mainly laboratory based, relying on infrastructure and trained personnel to conduct them. Rapid tests to detect the presence of the virus at the point of care, which are faster and cheaper, are a vital addition to the testing arsenal needed to contain and fight COVID-19.

These agreements are critical to fulfil the key objective of the ACT-Accelerator: to ensure all countries, regardless of income, have fair access to new tests and tools to fight COVID-19.

“High-quality rapid tests show us where the virus is hiding, which is key to quickly tracing and isolating contacts and breaking the chains of transmission,”said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO. “The tests are a critical tool for governments as they look to reopen economies and ultimately save both lives and livelihoods.”

About the ACT-Accelerator

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator is a new, ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. It was set up in response to a call from G20 leaders in March 2020 and launched by WHO, the European Commission, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April.

The ACT-Accelerator is not a decision-making body or a new organization, but works to speed up collaborative efforts among existing organizations to end the pandemic. It is a framework for collaboration that has been designed to bring key players around the table with the goal of ending the pandemic as quickly as possible. It emphasizes accelerated development, equitable allocation, and scaled up delivery of tests, treatments and vaccines, thereby protecting health systems and restoring societies and economies in the near term.

It draws on the experience of leading global health organizations which are tackling the world’s toughest health challenges, and who, by working together, are able to unlock new and more ambitious results against COVID-19. Its members share a commitment to ensure all people have access to all the tools needed to defeat COVID-19 and to work with unprecedented levels of partnership to achieve it. The ACT-Accelerator has four areas of work: diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and the health system connector. Cross-cutting all of these is the work stream on Access & Allocation.