Doctors Without Borders: Cheap Coronavirus Diagnostic Kits Needed in War-Torn Areas & Refugee Camps

February 28, 2020

Across the U.S., officials report a severe shortage of test kits for coronavirus. New York officials say they’re preparing their own kits, after kits distributed by the Centers for Disease Control failed validation tests. Meanwhile, new cases of coronavirus continue to spring up worldwide, with Nigeria reporting its first case and one of Iran’s vice presidents testing positive. We discuss how MSF USA, or Doctors Without Borders USA, is responding to coronavirus, with the organization’s executive director, Avril Benoît.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to move to the coronavirus. And there are links here. I mean, you have these crises not only in Syria, but around the world, where people need to flee. And then you have countries closing their border for all sorts of reasons. But, of course, coronavirus is going to contribute to that. I wanted to turn to the issue of the coronavirus and ask you about what’s happening here in the United States. New York officials say they’re preparing their own test kits, after kits distributed by the Centers for Disease Control failed validation tests. New cases of coronavirus continue to spring up worldwide. Nigeria is now reporting its first case. Iran’s vice president testing positive, and he was next to the president. And I believe Iran has canceled prayer for the first time in like 40 years. And at the Vatican, Pope Francis canceled a planned mass after he became ill from an unknown ailment, raising jitters in Italy, where 17 people have died of coronavirus. He had been speaking about it and, you know, offering comfort to those who are suffering. How is your organization, MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, dealing with this?

AVRIL BENOÎT: We work in 70 countries — operations, medical operations, projects. Those are the ones that we’re focused on right now, to get them ready. We have the case in Nigeria. You can imagine, there are many more cases. The testing capacity in the U.S., let alone in a low-income country or a fragile state, is extremely limiting. So we don’t know where coronavirus really is. And that’s one of the things that’s really concerning us, because we know that those countries, their health systems are already fragile, already underresourced. And so, what we’re trying to do is reinforce their capacity.

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We do have a team that’s doing public health information, infection control education, working out of Hong Kong, focusing also on those marginalized, vulnerable minority groups. There are little areas that you will always find who are forgotten in these outbreaks, where they’re not part of the dominant group. The messages go out in the main language of the country, and they forget about everyone else who speaks other languages. So that’s our focus. The prevention is going to be big.

We also have a lot of concerns, though, about the development of these testing kits. We need cheap, available, quick — you know, these rapid diagnostic kits to be available in the places where we work, because you can imagine if coronavirus starts to infiltrate maybe one of these refugee camps or an area with a lot of internally displaced people living in crowded conditions in a stadium or in a school. We work in those kind of places providing healthcare.

We’re looking for the vaccination also. This vaccination, this vaccine should be affordable. There’s a lot of public money going into this effort. A lot of global health experts are contributing to this effort. The profit motive of the R&D in the big pharmaceutical sector has to take into consideration that this is public money going into the development of a vaccine for coronavirus. And we would like to see the price be affordable, so that those low-income countries, those countries at war, countries that don’t have the means can afford to get access to it.

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