Ugandan scientists develop quick, low-cost COVID-19 test kits

By Richard Wetaya

April 13, 2020

Ugandan researchers have developed an inexpensive COVID-19 test kit that can deliver results quickly, offering hope for a “homegrown solution” to sub-Saharan Africa’s testing needs.

“It will be a game changing diagnostic kit which will change the trajectory of the pandemic,” predicted Dr. Misaki Wayengera, an internationally acclaimed scientist at Makerere University who is leading the research team. He previously created the pan-filovirus rapid diagnostic test, a paper-strip test that can detect the ebola and Marburg viruses, which are zoonotic (animal-borne) like the novel coronavirus.

“This innovation will change the way countries are addressing the pandemic,” said Barnabas Nawangwe, the university’s vice chancellor. “With the possibility to test cheaply and instantly, panic will be reduced and interventions will be more effective.”

The STDS-Agx (swab tube dipstick agglutination) COVID-19 test kit developed by Wayengera’s team can produce results in a minute of two, compared to the four-to-six hours it takes to get results from the German and Chinese kits now in wide use.

As the novel coronavirus sweeps the world, nations have struggled to make reliable, affordable tests available to health care practitioners. Broad, large-scale testing is widely seen as the best way to fully understand whether the virus is present in communities and how far it has spread. But a shortage of tests worldwide has led to an upsurge in fraudulent kits and a race to develop standardized, rapid and accurate diagnostic tests.

“This is a homegrown solution to the evident scarcity of resources for the management of this pandemic globally,” Wayengera said. “Everyone is running to the market and the variance in economic prowess means poor countries like those in sub-Saharan Africa are left with nothing. We must innovate around these shortages to fight the pandemic.”

A cheaper solution in a crisis

Each kit will cost an estimated US$1.07 (4,000 Ugandan shillings), making testing affordable. It is intended for use in rural settings, which often lack laboratory capacity or expertise, Wayengera said.

The Makekere University research team expects to have a prototype ready to be put into use next month, pending “expert validations,” Wayengera said.

“We are developing three versions of the test,” he explained. “Ideally, the choice of the swab tube dipstick is simply for ease of use for the choice of sample. Tests will work by generating solid particles from reaction of the virus with antibody or vice versa.”

The work has been funded by less than US$22,000 dollars from the Makerere University Research and Innovation Fund, but Wayengera said the upcoming development stages will be more costly.

He estimated some US$272,000 will be required to develop a prototype and more than US$1 million will be needed to mass produce the kits. Additional costs will be incurred for regulatory approval, intellectual property protection and commercialization.

“With our blueprint, we are upbeat about getting funding commitments from the Ugandan government and other partners in a few days,” Wayengera said. “The Health Ministry, the Technology and Innovation Ministry, Astel Diagnostics Uganda and the Uganda Virus Research Institute have all been key participating agencies, but Makerere University pioneered this development and it shall develop all the kits needed now and in the future.”

Wayengera said university researchers will move to quickly protect their intellectual property rights by patenting the test kits.

“It is important that all our innovations are patented,” he explained. “If this is not done, other people will use our intellectual property at no cost, and instead keep our country backward in industrial growth and research.”