Getting COVID-19 tests into the hands of health workers

In 2020 UNICEF distributed 3.7 million diagnostic tests to 63 countries at a value of $44.8 million.

A health worker puts on protective gear before entering the COVID-19 zone of a hospital in Atizapan, Mexico, on 22 May 2020, amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
29 March 2021

With the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, diagnostic testing became a crucial part of the global response. With no vaccine available at that time and many uncertainties in the air, reliable tests were essential to help contain the spread of the disease.

Diagnostics manufactures quickly responded to the emergency needs, and by early 2020, several new COVID-19 tests were already on the market. However, the quality and acceptability of the tests were uncertain. Therefore, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched their Emergency Use Listing (EUL) – a risk-based procedure for assessing and listing essential emergency health products – to expedite the availability of COVID-19 diagnostics.

At the same time, countries began urgently looking to UNICEF for support, as the demand for tests quickly began to rise.

UNICEF’s groundwork enabled a rapid response

As a global leader in procuring, distributing and programming for disease diagnostics – including for the Ebola, Zika virus, malaria and HIV diseases – UNICEF already had a solid system in place. At the onset of the pandemic, UNICEF urgently initiated the preparatory work by leveraging existing long-term agreements with major diagnostics suppliers. In parallel, with a new quality assurance policy developed for procuring COVID-19 diagnostics, UNICEF launched a dynamic tender process designed to capture all types of new tests (including rapid diagnostic tests), thereby enabling for immediate access to the market.

Wandani Sebonego and Job Achidri, technical specialists at UNICEF Supply Division, showcase the new COVID-19 rapid diagnostic test.
Wandani Sebonego and Job Achidri, technical specialists at UNICEF Supply Division, showcase the new COVID-19 rapid diagnostic test.

Over the course of 2020, there were several challenges due to an increased global demand for tests, making it difficult for lower-income countries to access the diagnostics. To address supply shortages and enable a more equitable access, UNICEF applied special contracting tools which involved financial agreements worth over $60 million to secure the products for programme countries. In addition, UNICEF advocated for a more equitable approach that included opening the market for more quality-assured diagnostics manufactures, which in turn lowered the price so more countries could afford them.

A snapshot of the efforts undertaken over the course of 2020 can be seen in the graphic below.

COVID-19 diagnostics delivered to 63 countries in 2020

In 2020, over 3.7 million COVID-19 tests were distributed to 63 countries, with the largest proportions sent to Nigeria, India, Uganda, Iran and Zimbabwe.

While most countries relied on two to four select products, in Nigeria, an approach for diversification of the supplier base was taken, which helped prevent critical dependencies, allowing for a competitive market and ability to adapt to different needs per location. In partnership with the Nigeria Central Disease Control, UNICEF procured eight different types of COVID-19 tests that were delivered to 50 diagnostics laboratories across the country. In addition, thousands of other items, including extraction kits, calibration plates, transport media and swabs were distributed to improve and assist COVID-19 testing.

Types of COVID-19 tests and equipment

By the end of 2020 the UNICEF Supply Catalogue featured a variety of COVID-19 tests available for global procurement, including 11 molecular (PCR) tests for manual use, four molecular (PCR) tests for automated use, and two antigen-detecting rapid tests. In addition, extraction kits and sample collection kits were offered. The three different types of COVID-19 diagnostic tests UNICEF distributes globally are explained below.

Improving how we respond to future disease outbreaks and pandemics

The robust and rapid action taken by the global community to ensure the availability of accurate COVID-19 diagnostics was a massive, extraordinary undertaking. All critical actors of the operation were committed and determined to getting the tests into the hands of healthcare workers – including the suppliers, international regulators, distributers, transport companies, healthy ministries, and United Nations and NGO partners.

When partners are engaged and determined, critical diagnostics can be innovated, procured and delivered to healthcare workers within months, and not years which has often been the case. This story tells us it’s possible – we can work together to respond to global crises and combat future illnesses.



Unless otherwise stated, all amounts shown are in US dollars.