A suitcase-sized laboratory for rapid detection of SARS-COV-2 in Africa

11 February 2021

The PCR test is the most accurate tool to identify SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. However, valid results are often available only after days. Moreover, the laboratory must be well equipped, have trained personnel and sufficient financial resources. In cooperation with several African universities, a study led by virologist Dr Ahmed Abd El Wahed, Leipzig University, found that a small, mobile laboratory fitting in a suitcase delivers test results that are almost as good as a PCR test and are delivered almost in real-time. EDCTP supported the clinical evaluation with a COVID-19 Emergency grant of €500,000.

“Controlling the COVID-19 pandemic is a global priory. Effective vaccines are bringing hope, but detection and isolation of infected cases remain an important part of the response. Unfortunately, the number of tests in sub-Saharan Africa is low in comparison to other countries. One of the reasons is the need for highly sophisticated and expensive real-time PCR equipment. To overcome this, we have developed a solar-powered portable lab for the rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2. Using a molecular assay, it takes only 15 minutes to get a result, with an accuracy of approximately 94% in comparison to real-time PCR”

Dr Ahmed Abd El Wahed, study coordinator, Leipzig University

“In April 2020, in the light of rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, EDCTP activated its Emergency Funding Mechanism to support research response activities in sub-Saharan Africa. A record number of proposals was processed in an expedited review. Research teams were able to quickly initiate studies that addressed the most urgent research questions specific to sub-Saharan Africa, including diagnostics in resource-constrained settings. The Africa Suitcase lab study is one of these and its results offer hope for patients and clinicians in remote areas.”

Jean Marie Vianney Habarugira, Project Officer responsible for the EDCTP COVID-19 Emergency Response Call

Quick diagnosis of cases can be an important and life-saving measure in countries that may have to wait a long time for vaccines and will contribute to bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control. The ‘suitcase lab’ is equipped with a diagnostic device (a recombinase polymerase amplification assay), a solar power supply, various reagents, some reference RNA extracts, and Glove-box. With this tool, a so-called RPA test can be done directly on-site, even in the most remote areas. Infected people can be identified and isolated more quickly. A saliva sample or a nasal swab is sufficient for the test and all reagents can be used at room temperature.

The method that is now being evaluated for COVID-19 tests, has already been successfully validated for a variety of other infectious diseases, for example in Guinea in 2015, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. For COVID-19 diagnosis, the mobile suitcase lab has already gone through late-stage validation studies in Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Uganda.

This project will run until September 2021, but further studies will be carried out to have robust data on the performance of the developed SARS-CoV-2 RPA tests in comparison to PCR tests. If the performance is the same or almost the same, as the preliminary data seem to suggest, the suitcase laboratory could soon be increasingly used in the clinical field to diagnose SARS-CoV-2. In addition to existing agreements with companies in China, the USA, and Germany for the production of the mobile lab, the project also is actively looking for manufacturers based in Africa.

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