Zimbabwe is sitting on a potentially catastrophic Covid-19 timebomb as the government is fast running out of test kits and protective clothing, resulting in a huge backlog of thousands of untested laboratory samples countrywide, the Zimbabwe Independent can reveal.
For almost a month now, the government has missed its target of testing 1 000 people per day. The government had targeted to have tested at least 40 000 people by the end of April, but as of yesterday 34 707 tests had been conducted, consisting of 19 623 rapid screening tests and 15 084 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
As of yesterday, Zimbabwe had 51 confirmed cases, 18 recoveries and four deaths. Globally, there are 5,01 million Covid-19 recorded infections, 1,91 million recoveries and 328 000 deaths.
Official sources directly involved in the management of the highly infectious respiratory disease told the Independent in off-the-record briefings this week that there was a real danger of an escalation in Covid-19 infections over the next two to three weeks owing to undetected cases.
The sources said the National Micro-Biology Centre at Sally Mugabe Hospital in Harare is grappling with mounting samples which have not been tested since last week.
As of Monday, the sources said, the centre had 4 000 samples collected in Harare alone that have not been tested. Figures from Bulawayo and other centres were not immediately available.
"What this means is that all these people are freely roaming the streets and, in the event that some of them are infected, they could be spreading the virus. Remember that as of now, the country is only testing those who develop symptoms similar to Covid-19 who want to know their status. There is very little proactive testing going on," a source said.
"There is no reagent now in the country as we speak and the situation is really scary especially if you look at it in the context of the decision by government to significantly ease the lockdown even without having first satisfied the minimum requirements as stipulated by the World Health Organisation. The effects are likely to be felt in two or so weeks," the source said.
The development comes after the closure of the Bulawayo testing centre for almost a week, after the Mpilo Central Hospital's National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory ran out of consumables.
The government had aimed at testing 1 000 people per day, but is conducting only 443 PCR diagnostic tests, less than half the target.
Contacted for comment, Health and Child Care minister Obadiah Moyo confirmed that the government is struggling to replenish the test kits, saying its plan to increase testing capacity was now highly compromised.
"Going forward, we plan to increase the number of tests per day but we are hampered by lack of access to test kits and PPE (personal protective equipment)," Moyo said.
The recently appointed chief coordinator of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Office of the President and Cabinet Agnes Mahomva said Zimbabwe's test kit challenges were not unique as many other countries are experiencing the same shortages.
She said the government's priority has now been refocussed on ensuring the continuation of testing, regardless of the nagging challenges.
"For the nitty-gritties, you can ask Dr (Gibson) Mhlanga (acting permanent secretary). We are continuing testing as we receive the kits and it is not just Zimbabwe facing the challenges. It is no longer about having stocks, but just enough to continue testing," Mahomva said.
The government had planned to test at least 40 000 people by the end of April, widening the criteria for those who qualify for testing to include: all returning citizens, admitted patients over 60 years, everyone in contact with a positive case, all patients with fever, among other conditions.
Furthermore, private companies that wished to resume business were also ordered to test, sanitise and monitor the temperature of employees, but very few firms can afford the high cost involved of procuring the test kits.
Zimbabwe, which recently extended the begging bowl to the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance, is heavily reliant on the donor community for test kits as it cannot fund its own procurement.
According to a document that was leaked on social media last month, Zimbabwe had only 500 test kits available on April 4 for use and these were donated by the World Health Organisation, while the 20 000 donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma's Alibaba Foundation were not usable, as they had missing reagents.
The business sector and donor community in the country have been making frantic efforts to acquire more lab kits to increase Zimbabwe's testing rate.
The Bulawayo testing centre was being supported by the National University of Science and Technology's Applied Genetic Testing Centre (AGTC) after it moved in some of its equipment to complement government efforts in fighting the pandemic.
Indications are that Zimbabwe has a long way to go before it can lift the Covid-19 lockdown as the situation on the ground has proven that the country lacks the capacity to effectively test citizens as stipulated by the World Health Organisation.
The WHO says any government that wants to lift restrictions must first meet six conditions to attest that: health systems are able to "detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact"; that disease transmission is under control; that hot spot risks are minimised in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes; and that schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures.
The conditions also include ensuring the risk of importing new cases "can be managed" and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.
"One of the main things we've learned in the past months about Covid-19 is that the faster all cases are found, tested, isolated and cared for, the harder we make it for the virus to spread," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.