An unexpected “urgent request” from the USAID relief agency has popped up where least expected – on the desks of aid groups around the world that work with refugees and poor people.
The U.S. agency asked them to find medical supplies and personal protective gear against the coronavirus that could be made available to the U.S. government. The unusual request was uncovered by reporters with the investigative unit of NBC News and CNN.
It is not known if the relief groups, including many in Africa, have supplies to spare or how their work with refugees and other vulnerable populations would be affected.
A task force led by Vice President Pence last month ordered a freeze on shipments of personal protective equipment abroad to safeguard supplies needed in the U.S., despite the scarcity of medical equipment across Africa. Until February, there were only two laboratories on the continent able to test for the virus – in Senegal and South Africa.
Since then, the World Health Organization has supplied approximately 40 countries with testing equipment and more is reportedly on the way.
WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebrey said some countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, were using systems developed for the deadly Ebola virus to now test for the coronavirus.
“This is a great example of how investing in health systems can pay dividends for health security,” Tedros said.
In the USAID email, titled “Urgent Request for Inventory of Available PPE and Medical Equipment Resources,” groups that carry out USAID-funded projects overseas were asked to take stock of all medical supplies that could be of use to the U.S. government in its fight against the coronavirus outbreak and inform USAID within 24 hours.
As of this week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa was 9,867 – with 947 recoveries and 482 deaths.
The Kenya Medical Research Institute conducts tests at no cost to the patient, but it hasn’t been easy to get tested for coronavirus. Dr. Ahmed Kalebi, a lead consultant pathologist, said this was because there were only a couple hundred test kits left in Kenya.
So he sent his sample to a laboratory in South Africa. Even there, Kalebi said, there was a backlog of 7,000 samples.
“Not many countries have commercial or large-scale production of these kits, and certainly in Africa we don’t have that,” he said.