Cotonou, 22 October 2020 - Benin's first COVID-19 case was diagnosed at the Viral Haemorrhagic Fever Laboratory in the capital Cotonou in March 2020. Then it was the country's sole facility able to test for the virus. At best it could carry out only 300 tests per day.
In the early phase of the pandemic, Benin, like many African countries, lacked adequate COVID-19 testing. Over the recent months, governments across the continent have ramped up diagnosis, which is crucial in understanding the scale and trend of COVID-19 infections as well as guiding public health measures against the virus.
From the single laboratory in the capital city, Benin now has 13 laboratories capable of testing for COVID-19, with all its 12 departments having at least one. It also currently ranks among the 12 countries in the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region carrying out more than 10 tests per 10 000 people per week.
A range of strategies have boosted Benin's COVID-19 response. Triage and testing centres have been set up across the country's 77 communes as well as in health facilities, airport and land border crossings. Mobile testing teams also carry out diagnosis in government offices and in private companies, while a hotline provides access to COVID-19 information and assistance.
Through polymerase chain reaction tests - the reference for COVID-19 testing - and rapid diagnostic tests, Benin is carrying out around 7900 tests per week, and has done more than 222 000 tests cumulatively, says Dr Ange Dodji Dossou, the national director of medical services.
"A network of testing centres has been set up across the country to detect, issue alerts and trace people suspected to have contracted COVID-19," Dr Dossou explains.
The government, in collaboration with WHO, in April stepped up the diagnostic capacity of the Viral Haemorrhagic Fever Laboratory to make it a reference laboratory. Working with the Institut Pasteur, Senegal's pre-eminent laboratory, and the Virology Institute at Berlin's Charité University Hospital has also uplifted COVID-19 testing in Benin.
"This has placed the Viral Haemorrhagic Fever Laboratory among the reference COVID-19 testing laboratories such as Institut Pasteur in Dakar or the one in Johannesburg," says Dr Mamoudou Harouna Djingarey, WHO interim representative in Benin.
A US$ 30-million funding mobilized with World Bank as well as support from other partners has helped to modernize the Cotonou-based laboratory and 10 other health facilities across the country, five of which have been transformed into treatment centres and intensive care for COVID-19 patients, Dr Djingarey explains.
In addition, WHO, working with partner organizations, has supplied reagents, sample collection and testing kits as well as personal protective equipment to boost the COVID-19 response in Benin.
The Viral Haemorrhagic Fever Laboratory can now provide COVID-19 test results based on polymerase chain reaction method in six hours using 15 real-time polymerase chain reaction diagnostic machines.
With 2557 cases so far and 41 deaths, Benin has made significant efforts in curbing COVID-19. "In Africa where we have many asymptomatic cases, only through mass testing can governments qualitatively assess the evolution of the virus and gather reliable information to steer response strategies," Dr Yadouleton points out.
The improvements being made in COVID-19 testing also need to outlive the pandemic, says Dr Djingarey.
"Our goal is that the laboratories should remain operational post-COVID-19 so as to test for other disease and form part of the global flu surveillance network, early warning and diagnosis as well as effective response in case of new outbreaks in Benin."