Zimbabwe to increase COVID-19 testing with TB diagnostic machine

A GeneXpert machine

Zimbabwe will use GeneXpert machines, normally used to diagnose tuberculosis, to conduct rapid tests for the novel coronavirus, the health ministry announced on Sunday.

The country, which has 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases and three deaths, had conducted 547 tests by April 12, according to government statistics.

Analysts have warned that the low level of testing has weakened the country’s COVID-19 response. The health ministry’s plans for 33,000 coronavirus tests by the end of April have been held back by the late delivery of test kits and reagents for some 20,000 kits donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

“The country has a total of 167 GeneXpert machines, 132 of which are housed in public health institutions,” the health ministry said in a Twitter update.

“Previously, the GeneXpert machines were being used for tuberculosis testing and the country has since procured a consignment of cartridges for the machines for COVID-19 testing.”

According to a World Health Organisation note on use of the GeneXpert machines for COVID-19 testing, each device can conduct four tests concurrently, producing results after 45 minutes.

The United States Food and Drug Administration approved use of the Xpress SARS CoV-2 cartridges on March 20.

Assuming that all Zimbabwe’s 167 GeneXpert machines are in use in a 24 hour cycle, the country could potentially test over 16,000 coronavirus samples in a day, significantly scaling up testing capacity from the current low levels.

A key consideration in the use of the GeneXpert machines in Zimbabwe would be the availability of spare testing capacity in a country with a TB incidence rate of 210 out of every 100,000 people according to WHO data. The cost of the cartridges is also another factor to be considered.