With COVID-19 surging throughout the Americas and demand for diagnostics higher than ever, the Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne has called on countries to prioritize rapid antigen tests for those with symptoms – who are most at risk of spreading the disease.
With 7.2 million new COVID cases reported in the region over the past week, countries must “expand testing at the community level to relieve pressure on hospitals, which are working overtime,” she said during a media briefing today.
Rapid antigen tests, which offer a diagnosis in just minutes, do not require specialized equipment or training so, “can be deployed to primary health centers, where they can reach more people closer to home,” the PAHO Director added.
Given the current shortage of tests – a problem that is expected to continue for some time as Omicron spreads rapidly throughout the region – Dr. Etienne also urged countries to advise those without symptoms who have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine where possible and follow public health measures. “Slowing the spread of COVID will require every tool in our arsenal – vaccines, social distancing, mask wearing, avoiding large gatherings, and testing,” Dr. Etienne said.
The Director highlighted PAHO’s work to improve the region’s laboratory capacity to respond to emerging pathogens, even before the pandemic arrived in the region. “Every country had the training, the supplies, and the ability to perform COVID-19 diagnostic tests,” the PAHO Director added.
PAHO now leads a network of more than 32 laboratories across the Americas, which enable countries to track the virus and detect new variants “so that our region is prepared.” This network was key to detecting the arrival of Omicron in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, helping governments to adapt their responses to this latest wave.
Since the start of the pandemic, PAHO has acquired more than 42 million molecular RT-PCR and rapid antigen tests for 36 countries, with its own funds and through the PAHO Strategic Fund, a pooled procurement mechanism that offers countries quality-assured medicines and medical devices at affordable prices.
The organization has also deployed 10 million PCR diagnostics and 2.8 million rapid antigen tests from its stockpile to countries in need and has established long-term agreements with two WHO-approved manufacturers of COVID-19 tests to secure these tools for the region at a fraction of the price.
“Countries can and should take advantage of these agreements by purchasing diagnostic tests through our Strategic Fund,” the PAHO Director said. Turning to the COVID-19 situation in the region, Dr. Etienne said that the United States and Canada continue to experience a surge in hospitalizations.
In South America, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina are also experiencing an increase in hospitalization, and a spike in infections in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia. In Central America, cases have more than doubled in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras over the past week. The Caribbean islands have also seen a sharp increase in infections, with cases doubling in more than 17 countries and territories.
Over 60% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are now fully vaccinated against COVID. “Vaccines shield us from the worst COVID symptoms and reduce our chances of needing hospitalized care,” the PAHO Director said, calling for those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.