African nations develop system for pooling medical supplies orders

African countries are developing a platform to pool orders to break into the global diagnostics and medical equipment market they have largely been shut out of during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency is setting up a digital purchasing system that will allow African governments to jointly order chemical reagents and nasal swabs in a move to overcome a severe lack of testing that has led to an underestimation of the true state of the pandemic in the continent. The system will link African governments with Chinese suppliers of both diagnostics and equipment including masks and gowns, Dr John Nkengasong told the Financial Times in an interview.

Dr Nkengasong said the continent’s negotiating position would be improved “if we come together and pool through the Africa CDC as a specialised agency of the African Union, and they bring some political leverage to that”.

Africa CDC is a division of the AU, and the pooling platform is being created under a mandate from the heads of state bureau led by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.

African countries have often found their orders for vital medical equipment denied because they tend to be smaller — in the hundreds of thousands of pieces versus millions from western countries. Many countries have also placed restrictions on manufacturers’ ability to export.

Pooled orders would allow African countries to better compete in the global market, Dr Nkengasong said. Africa CDC is co-ordinating with its Chinese counterpart in order to connect countries with certified suppliers and to negotiate set prices.

“The key thing to understand here is that you have to have the volumes,” he said. “So you pool say from Mali, from Togo, Cameroon, and then they can now approach the correct companies in China and say look, we are going to place an order of 5m, and you have to deliver 1m every week — that’s how you become competitive in this market.”

A beta version of the platform — which Dr Nkengasong likened to Amazon or Alibaba — will be demonstrated at the CDC headquarters in Addis Ababa on Friday, with a pilot programme involving a few countries and sample orders run in the coming days.

He said he hoped to have the platform running soon after. “This is an emergency,” he said. “So it’s not a question of months, it’s a question of a few weeks.”

The system is being funded by London-based Zimbabwean telecoms billionaire Strive Masiyiwa, founder of Econet, whose developers are creating the platform with Africa CDC. 

Dr Nkengasong said that the agency was aware of reports from Europe of defective medical equipment from China, but that it had so far had a good experience with Chinese goods. Most of the equipment imported into the continent since the pandemic began has come from China, including 1.5m test kits donated by the Jack Ma Foundation.

The pandemic is in an earlier stage in Africa than it is in the west, and seems to be spreading at a slower pace, with about 73,000 confirmed cases and 2,500 deaths recorded since the first reported infection in late February. 

But few countries are testing widely. Africa’s most populous country Nigeria has tested just over 30,000 samples for a population of about 200m.

Dr Nkengasong said that earlier this week the head of the Covid-19 response in South Africa — which has led the continent in testing with more than 400,000 samples analysed so far — called him to say that even sub-Saharan Africa’s most industrialised nation was running out of extraction reagents. 

“This is a country that is on a good pathway to scaling up their testing and doing the contact tracing — the basic things that will help us end the pandemic — but they are running out of extraction media,” he said. “South Africa doesn’t lack money to buy reagents, they just don’t know where to go to. So that is what we are trying to solve.”

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