In most wealthy countries, getting a COVID-19 test is routine.

But in many parts of Africa, these diagnostics, one of the first lines of defense against the novel coronavirus, remain hard to come by. As of August 2021, the continent, home to 1.1 billion people, had conducted about 47 million COVID-19 tests;  the United States alone administered nearly 10 times that figure. The paucity of tests has left patients in the lurch and public health officials trying to fight the pandemic blindfolded.

To help change that, IFC spearheaded a €15 million financing package earlier this year for Cerba Lancet Africa, which runs medical laboratories in 12 Sub-Saharan African states. The financing, mobilized in partnership with France’s Proparco, will help Cerba Lancet Africa upgrade its labs in places like Ghana, Kenya and East Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Rwanda, and branch out to new countries. That growth will provide many Africans with access to fast, accurate tests for COVID-19 and many other diseases for which access to testing has been a challenge.

“Access to diagnostics is a vital part of the COVID-19 response,” said Stéphane Carré, CEO of Cerba Lancet Africa. “Accurate diagnostics is essential to providing patients with high-quality care and ensuring they receive the right treatment.”

The tests are also expected to be an important source of data for public health officials, allowing them to better gauge the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. Officially, 6.7 million Africans had contracted COVID-19 and the disease had killed 172,000 people as of August 2021. But researchers, including those at the United States’ University of Washington, suspect the actual numbers are far higher.

Along with COVID-19 tests, Cerba Lancet Africa, which already serves 2.5 million patients a year, is expected to ramp up testing for non-communicable diseases. That is considered important in Sub-Saharan Africa where these types of ailments, which include cancer, diabetes and hypertension, accounted for more than 35 percent of all deaths in 2019.

“A lot of the people you see walking around have never had any kind of routine medical checkup,” said Nontlantla Ngwenya, Chief Operating Officer at Cerba Lancet Africa.

“Our fundamental role at Cerba Lancet Africa is to close that gap by ensuring laboratory testing is accessible to a majority of people in the African continent. This will ensure patients are treated correctly and early.”

The financing for Cerba Lancet Africa is part of a bigger push by IFC to help Africa improve medical care over the long term, considered crucial on a continent where many healthcare systems are fragile.

Since March 2020, IFC has provided more than $777 million to private healthcare companies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from diagnostic testing, IFC has helped to expand vaccine production,  provide clinics with modern medical equipment, and foster innovation in the healthcare sector.

IFC’s work underscores the importance of the private sector in improving healthcare in Africa, which is struggling with the fallout of COVID-19, said Olaf Schmidt, IFC’s Manager for Real Estate, Hotel & Retail, Health & Education and Manufacturing Investments in Africa.

“By tapping into the expertise and financial strength of private companies, countries can dramatically improve the health and wellness of their people,” he added.