Nigerian tech steps up to boost coronavirus testing

Covid-19 has stretched Nigeria’s health system and the country has lagged behind in its capacity to test for the virus, but tech companies are helping to find solutions. Linus Unah reports


Covid-19 has stretched Nigeria’s health system and the country has lagged behind in its capacity to test for the virus, but tech companies are helping to find solutions, as Linus Unah reports

For over a decade, tech startups in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos have pioneered solutions in education, agriculture, health, fiscal transparency and payment technology in this dynamic and restless country. 

With the coronavirus pandemic stretching the country’s health systems, pummelling the economy and destroying livelihoods, the sector is once again stepping up to offer solutions.

The inadequacies of Nigeria’s official response have been glaring and grim. Isolation beds, quarantine facilities, extraction kits, and cash transfer programmes for poor and vulnerable households are all severely limited.

One month after reporting its first case, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had tested fewer than 1,000 people, and only six laboratories were testing for the virus in a country with 36 states and about 200m people. Nigeria had almost 5,000 official cases at the time of writing in mid-May, but without efficient testing, the real number could be much larger.

Addressing the testing deficit

The testing deficit is a problem that 54gene, an African genomics startup with offices in Lagos and Washington DC, has set its sights on addressing. 

In late March, 54gene launched a testing fund to raise cash to expand testing by up to 1,000 additional tests per day. It donated $150,000 to the fund and secured $350,000 from other partners, including Union Bank of Nigeria. 

With the funds, the genomics company has provided testing instruments to public laboratories and biosafety cabinets and personal protective equipment to health workers fighting the pandemic. 

CEO Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, who launched 54gene last year, said Nigeria’s public health is “an absolute priority during this global pandemic”. 54gene is also establishing mobile laboratories in Ogun, Kano and Abuja, to boost testing. The mobile laboratory, a 40-foot container structure, is fitted with essential instruments and PCR machines to support testing. 

The labs, says Ene-Obong, offer a solution to the  the “logistics of shipping samples to another location for the processing, which reduces turnaround times for test results and allows clinicians to manage and treat patients accurately, sooner rather than later”. 

Another startup, LifeBank, which ordinarily delivers blood and oxygen supplies to hospitals and patients, has been working with several partners to build drive-through testing facilities. 

On 30 March, Lifebank collaborated with the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) to start a 2000-capacity drive-through centre in the Yaba district of Lagos.

Interested residents sign up online and enter their details – those who meet the NCDC’s case definition are emailed a letter and invited to visit the facility. 

Two weeks later, the blood transportation startup opened another mobile testing facility in the city of Ibadan, 130km south of Lagos, to test 2000 people within two weeks. 

National register

LifeBank has created a national asset register, Quip, in which staff and volunteers call hospitals throughout Nigeria to document the availability of respirators, ventilators and ICU beds. Hospitals can also list their equipment on the website. The firm has engaged volunteer engineers to fix broken equipment. The idea behind Quip is to establish a national repository where hospitals on the frontline can easily find critical equipment as and when needed.

It has expanded Quip to Kenya, and is seeking volunteers for similar services in Ghana and Ethiopia. 

“If the caseload for Covid-19 keeps going up Nigeria will need ventilators, respirators and ICU beds,” LifeBank founder and CEO Temie Giwa-Tubosun warned on Twitter.

So far, the firm has contacted more than 2,000 hospitals in Nigeria and found 288 ventilators, 207 respirators and 275 ICU beds. In Kenya, volunteers have reached 102 hospitals and found 54 ventilators, six respirators and 265 ICU beds. 

LifeBank is also providing 24-hour medical oxygen deliveries to isolation centres in Lagos and has built a Safe Hands app, which reminds users to wash their hands every 30 minutes, illustrates how to properly wash hands, and monitors progress.

With all the support Nigerian health authorities had received from tech startups as well as the private sector, nearly 30,000 samples had been tested by mid-May. 

Finding solutions

In Lagos, the centre of the pandemic, local authorities are tapping into the potential of tech to find a variety of solutions. 

Ventures Platform, an Africa-wide network that supports entrepreneurs and innovators, has created the Covid-19 Innovative Challenge (CIC) in partnership with the Lagos State Science Research and Innovation Council (LASRIC) to provide a grant of $3000 apiece to seven developers to create tech-driven solutions to fight the spread of Covid-19. 

Some of the solutions undergoing modifications include a GPS and Bluetooth-based solution to improve contact tracing as well as a risk assessment tool which connects high-risk individuals to medical resources.

“We believe that this partnership… will help us source a number of products and services that will help vast swathes of our population stay healthy and protected,” Olatunbosun Alake of LASRIC said in a statement.

“We also believe that what works here in Lagos will help the rest of Africa.” 

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