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Mass Covid-19 testing fails to take off as cases soar


May 1, 2020

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka famously declared that a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude; he pounces.

This has not been the case for Kenya, as the road to mass testing in the fight against Covid-19 has been one of too many words, but little to no action.

While Kenya insists it has the ability to conduct up to 37,000 tests per day, the country faces a unique challenge of not having the very first tool to getting a coronavirus test: the nasal swabs.

These are the ear-bud like tools used to collect samples deep inside one’s nose for the test to be done.

“The kits have certain components that come together for us to have a complete test,” said Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi.

“The great challenge we have right now is the presence of nasopharyngeal swabs. We have discussions on how to domesticate these swabs to be able to utilise it to run a successful test.”

The other setback highlighted by the ministry is the lack of laboratory reagents, testing kits including Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) kits.

Delay in mass testing may cost Kenya a lot in Covid-19 fight, with acting Health Director-General Patrick Amoth observing that the lack of sample collection kits could mean the virus is hiding in plain sight.

“One of the challenges we have in terms of testing is the lack of testing kits. This could have skewed our figures. Remember there was a time we were able to test around 1,500, then we went to 300, and now we are back to around 700. As we start mass testing in Kawangware on Friday, we will be better informed,” he said recently.


In their presentation to the Senate, the Health ministry also said the biggest challenge they face is inadequate human resources, in particular laboratory technologists.

“However, the machines are easy to use and clinical officers and nurses can be utilised to assist in sample collection so that the limited laboratory technologist run the tests,” the ministry said.

“The staff deployed in Kemri labs are not government employees; they comprise 41 volunteers while the rest, numbering 100, are project employees (started as interns on Sh118,000 per month pay,” said the ministry.

Compared to its peers, Kenya is doing dismally. By Wednesday, South Africa, with 5,350 positive cases, had conducted 197,127 tests, with Ghana doing about 70,000.

Uganda, whose economy is smaller than Kenya’s, has been doing an average of 2,500 tests per day and Ethiopia about 1,500.

For every positive case, Kenya has tested only 50 people, with Uganda and Rwanda doing 333 and 100, respectively.


The lack of robust testing as promised in the early stages of the virus means that the country’s efforts may be out of touch with the reality, considering that 71 per cent of those who have tested positive have shown no symptoms.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently.

To mitigate this gap, the ministry has now deployed what it calls serosurveillance studies — going into an area reporting cases and isolating them for possible tests based on symptoms and contacts — as well as the activation of community health providers to provide even closer monitoring of the situation.

The ministry has also activated 6,335 community health units and 63,350 community health workers, targeting a total of 12.4 million households, mostly in slums and remote villages, to receive tips on the virus prevention.

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