South Africa working on new rapid coronavirus tests: minister

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) have made seven funding awards to local companies, organisations and researchers to ramp up the country’s ability to produce locally developed reagents and test kits for Covid-19.

The awards are valued at about R18 million with the funding recipients set to commence with their responsibility immediately, with approximately six months to begin production, said DSI minister Blade Nzimande.

“South Africa currently sources these reagents from international companies, but increasing global demand, fluctuating exchange rates and limited transport options are affecting the supply – resulting in an urgent need to source these components locally,” he said.

The minister said there is an urgent need to strengthen South Africa’s capacity for identifying active cases of Covid-19, to allow for more effective contact tracing and quarantining.

“To do this, the country needs to reduce the turnaround time for diagnosing active Covid-19 infections by developing point-of-care (PoC) kits for rapid, direct detection of the coronavirus,” he said.

Nzimande said that eight proposals were received for the development of diagnostic reagents, while 24 proposals were received for the development of PoC rapid detection kits.

Following rigorous reviews by two panels, three funding awards were made in the first category, and four awards were made in the second category.

“These awards for local innovations will address bottlenecks in South Africa’s Covid-19 testing, through the development of reagents that can be locally manufactured for existing gold standard Covid-19 tests, as well as alternative, point-of-care (PoC) diagnostic kits that can rapidly detect the presence of SARS-Cov-2 viral proteins and/or particles,” said Nzimande.

Development of rapid detection kits 

Four projects will be supported for the development of rapid diagnostic kits, said Nzimande.

He noted that this category focuses on rapid detection of the presence of SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins and/or particles, and excludes antibody tests.

“Rapid detection offers a number of advantages over the RT-PCR diagnostic method, as these tests can be administered on the spot and the results can be read within as little as 15 minutes.”

Some of the projects include:

  • Medical Diagnostech has already begun developing an antigen-based rapid test for detecting acute cases of Covid-19. The test is designed to directly detect the COVID-19 spike glycoprotein S1 in saliva to determine whether a patient currently has an acute infection. It does not require trained lab staff or expensive machinery and is thus significantly more cost-effective than gold-standard testing, and production can be scaled up to 100 000 units per day at the company’s premises in Brackenfell, Cape Town;
  • Mintek was awarded funding for the development of a rapid test kit for detecting the SARS-CoV-2 viral antigen in PoC or near-patient settings.

Nzimande said that funding had also been given to the CSIR and a number of other companies for the evelopment of ‘diagnostic reagents’.

“The combination of these three projects will adequately address South Africa’s immediate needs for locally produced reagents for test kits,” said Nzimande.

“The projects would also make good use of the strengths of the CSIR and several spin-off SMMEs, and showcase the excellence of a number of the country’s young black scientists,” said the minister.

You can find the full list of projects here.

Read: Gauteng government says it won’t push for a hard lockdown – here’s what it plans to do instead

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South Africa working on new rapid coronavirus tests: minister