Enhancing COVID-19 testing – an investment in health

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7 July 2021 – Almost a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan is grappling with a substantial third wave with cases continuing to rise across the country. In response to mounting needs, the European Union (EU) Delegation in Kabul donated €15 million to support WHO’s efforts to tackle and mitigate the health and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic.

While the ongoing vaccination programme has brought new hope in the fight against COVID-19, testing remains a key tool for effectively detecting and containing cases, especially with the emergence of new variants. Through the EU funding, WHO has supported the Ministry of Public Health to establish 12 new COVID-19 testing laboratories and train 68 laboratory technicians, among other areas of response.

“Without the commitment and support of donors such as the generous EU donation we received earlier this year, the response would have been highly lagging,” said Dr Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan.

With support from various donors, to date Afghanistan has established 31 COVID-19 confirmatory public laboratories across 24 provinces, with a total testing capacity of 8700 tests every day. More than 300 laboratory technicians have also been trained on COVID-19 testing, and some trained as trainers to ensure continuous availability of services.

Scaling up epidemiological surveillance

The health and socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 have undermined previously achieved gains in upgrading Afghanistan’s health system. The pandemic challenged health facilities’ capacity to treat COVID-19 patients while maintaining other basic health services, especially in hard-to-reach and active-conflict areas. EU funding is supporting WHO’s efforts in scaling up Afghanistan’s epidemiological surveillance and capacity to quickly detect and mitigate impacts of COVID-19 and other future health emergencies.

Making testing accessible

The expansion of the laboratory network has been particularly beneficial for enabling people to get quickly tested without having to travel for long distances or to other provinces. This has significantly improved access to health for some of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups who may otherwise not have the means or ability to travel to other parts of the country for testing.

Daad Mohammad is from Wardak province and has been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. “I am happy to be able to come to the Wardak lab for testing. A year back, things were very different for us here in Wardak province,” he said.

Last year, one of Daad’s relatives was suspected of having COVID-19. To confirm the diagnosis, a sample was collected and sent to Kabul for testing. It took 2 weeks to get back the results from Kabul during which time 6 more family members became infected with COVID-19. “Now, we can get tested and have the result within a few hours and apply proper preventive measures if a person is positive,” he continued assuredly.

Muhammad Niaz from Kunduz province is also glad he does not need to travel elsewhere to get tested. “I am very happy and satisfied by the service provided by the lab and by the staff’s proficiency. I feel very fortunate that our samples are tested here in Kunduz and we don’t need to wait for days to receive the result,” he said.  

Supporting health workers through training

Mr Faridullah Safi is a virologist and Head of Surveillance Department at the Kabul Central Laboratory. He has been working at the laboratory for the past 13 years and was among those who received the EU-funded training delivered by WHO for the pandemic response.

“Throughout my career, I have received multiple trainings by WHO. After the COVID-19 pandemic, I was trained as a trainer and now I regularly train our provincial surveillance teams to extract samples and properly send them to the central laboratory,” said Mr Safi.

Currently the central laboratory processes around 150 samples daily and a large number of these samples are received from surveillance teams in the provinces.

The EU-supported training of laboratory technicians has been crucial in quickly enhancing human resource availability to expand COVID-19 testing and ensure the establishment of laboratories is backed with competent staff.

Long-term goals

WHO continues to closely collaborate with the Ministry of Public Health and partners to strengthen COVID-19 surveillance through establishing and equipping laboratories across Afghanistan to ensure ease of access for all people, even those in hard-to-reach and remote areas.

The investment in laboratories will have long-term payoffs beyond COVID-19 as they will contribute to improving access to tertiary health care at the provincial level.