Mission possible: getting affordable COVID-19 tests to those who need it most

How UNICEF is enabling access to COVID-19 diagnostics for low- and middle-income countries.

A health worker takes a COVID-19 nasal swab sample test at Malad area of Mumbai, India.
30 August 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered diagnostic testing needs at an unprecedented scale. Early in 2020, while diagnostics manufacturers were still struggling to ramp up the production capacity of the novel COVID-19 tests to an adequate level, constrained supply and high demand pushed prices to levels almost prohibitive for low and lower-middle income countries.  

“At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, we were trying to secure availability and prices at a time of fierce buyers’ competition. In that competitive context, low and lower-middle income countries had a lesser leverage and were disadvantaged compared to the high-income countries,” says UNICEF Contracts Manager at the Health Technology Center, Ms Lama Ramzi Suleiman. 

A breakthrough

To enable equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics and curb prices, UNICEF engaged with collaborating partners, other UN agencies and eligible suppliers, pooled demand, deployed advanced contracting tools, which involved financial agreements worth over $60 million, and negotiated affordable quality-assured test kits for global distribution. As a result, UNICEF reduced its procurement prices for COVID-19 PCR tests for manual use that ranged between US$ 12 - 15 per test at the onset of the pandemic by forty to sixty per cent already by November 2020.

In July 2021, following successful negotiations with a supplier, UNICEF announced the availability of the most affordable quality-assured COVID-19 PCR test in its supply portfolio retailing at US$2.80 per test. Having this test available for countries at this time in the ongoing pandemic, and at an affordable cost, is a breakthrough. 

As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, some low-income countries are seeing a rise in the number of cases, causing national economies to lock down, putting pressure on already struggling economies. While countries increasingly rely on less expensive antigen-detecting rapid tests for COVID-19 to achieve larger testing coverage, PCR tests are the gold standard and their importance remains high. Health authorities across the globe endorsed the use of PCR tests for COVID-19, which are included as part of national testing protocols.

A health worker takes a COVID-19 nasal swab sample test at Malad area of Mumbai, India.
Access to affordable and highly-accurate COVID 19 diagnostic testing

“Real time- PCR is the most accurate diagnostic test for COVID-19, and more reliable than antigen rapid test due to high sensitivity and specificity to the virus.  Reduced procurement costs enable countries access to affordable, highly-accurate COVID 19 diagnostic testing as well as other types of related diagnostics,” added Technical Specialist at the Health Technology Center, Ms Wandani Sebonego. 

To support the efficient use of PCR test kits for COVID-19 testing UNICEF provides technical guidance on what is needed to run these tests and what is required in country to make sure that the test is compatible. Partners and countries that procure PCR test kits for COVID-19 have to ensure that they have compatible laboratory equipment and also compatible extraction kits to perform tests. 

The full list of COVID-19 PCR tests available through UNICEF supply is accessible at the Reference notes for new COVID-19 diagnostics page.