In West Africa, Investments in Lab Capacity Pay Dividends in COVID-19 Response

In West Africa, Investments in Lab Capacity Pay Dividends in COVID-19 Response

Airlink, DHL Express,, Lufthansa, and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) in an effort to bring medical diagnostics to prevent COVID-19 spread in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, diagnostics have been at the forefront of the global response. Strong testing capacity is critical to operationalizing isolation protocols, and containment measures. 

Yet, as we have seen throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 related commodities are in high demand, and procuring stocks of necessary supplies can be difficult or close to impossible and diagnostics supplies are no different. 

These procurement challenges are compounded with the logistical challenges of shipping cargo while airfreight capacity is constrained, leaving numerous countries unable to secure adequate stock of necessary materials.

Our partner, Partners In Health, quickly recognized that COVID-19 would “disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and hit countries with weak health systems the hardest”. Using their extensive experience in treating infectious disease outbreaks around the world, Partners In Health quickly positioned themselves to respond to COVID-19 while continuing their efforts to strengthen health systems around the world. 

KONO, SIERRA LEONE - October 25, 2017: Sister Agnes Matturie, Midwife in charge of managing the Koidu Government Hospital Maternity Ward
stands in the upgraded operating room in the maternity center.

In collaboration with local communities, a wide network of community health workers and Ministries of Health, Partners In Health set into motion a plan to address the threat of COVID-19 in their program countries, of which diagnostics was a central pillar. 

To build adequate diagnostic capacity Partners In Health relies on both polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and rapid antigen and antibody testing. PCR is the gold standard in diagnostics and serves as a critical tool in confirming results from rapid tests. To achieve this accuracy, PCR tests are designed to detect nucleic acid from SARS CoV-2 and via replication, determine the absence or presence of the virus. PCR testing for SARS CoV-2 includes a process of “RNA extraction”: since SARS CoV-2 is an RNA-based virus, its genomic material must be extracted from the patient sample and converted from RNA to DNA. This process requires a variety of laboratory materials as well as refrigerator and freezer capacity to maintain the sample integrity. 

PCR testing was not widely available in Liberia and Sierra Leone prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and many of the necessary supplies and materials needed to be imported. 

Securing airlift into West Africa has remained a challenge throughout the pandemic with a limited number of airlines operating flights into the region. With support from our airline, logistics, and funding partners, DHL Express,, Lufthansa, and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), Airlink coordinated airlift for multiple shipments containing critical testing supplies on behalf of Partners In Health to their programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The shipments, valued at over $32,000, have led to critical improvements in testing capacity.

PLEEBO, LIBERIA - NOVEMBER 16, 2016: Filling prescriptions at Pleebo Health Center in Liberia.

Across Sierra Leone and Liberia, Partners In Health-supported facilities collectively serve a catchment area covering a population of approximately 453,000 people. In each country, PCR testing capacity is available at a limited number of locations, mainly at national laboratories in Freetown and Monrovia. 

Through our collaboration, Partners In Health provided materials requested by government officials to support an additional 2,000 PCR tests in each country. The additional cache of testing supplies prevented stock outs and enabled on-going testing.  In Sierra Leone, Partners In Health brought the first, long-term PCR and molecular diagnostic capacity to rural communities in Kono District, by setting up PCR testing capacity at Koidu Government Hospital.

The challenges of increasing testing capacity continue with procurement competition, cargo logistics, and constrained resources, yet success in initiatives such as Partners In Health’s laboratory capacity programs are imperative to ensuring equity in the global response to COVID-19. 

Header Photo Details

KONO, SIERRA LEONE – October 24, 2017: Wellbody Clinic staff Esther takes vitals for patients arriving at Wellbody Clinic on a busy Tuesday morning.

Picture of Bethany Holland

Bethany Holland

Bethany Holland is the Humanitarian Programs Manager at Airlink. Her role includes managing and expanding Airlink's NGO partnerships, building Airlink's capacity in disaster-prone regions around the world, and coordinating the mobilization of passengers and cargo in support of humanitarian emergencies around the world.

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