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In Scramble for Coronavirus Supplies, Rich Countries Push Poor Aside

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Yet within weeks, Dr. Tanuri was left to frantically call private firms on three continents, trying to source the chemical reagents needed for the 200 testing samples his labs receive every day — only to be told that the United States and Europe had already bought up months of production.

“If we purchase something to arrive in 60 days, it’s too late,” he said. “The virus goes faster than we can go.”

The situation is similar for some African countries.

After reporting its first death on March 27, South Africa moved swiftly, introducing a strict lockdown and announcing ambitious house-to-house canvassing that has already seen 47,000 people tested. South Africa has more than 200 public labs, an impressive network that surpasses wealthier countries like Britain and was developed in response to past outbreaks of H.I.V. and tuberculosis.

But, like Brazil, it is reliant on international manufacturers for the chemical reagents, and other equipment, needed to process the tests. Dr. Francois Venter, an infectious diseases expert who is advising the South African government, said the struggle to acquire the reagents was endangering the country’s overall response.

“We have the capacity to do large testing, but we’ve been bedeviled by the fact the actual testing materials, reagents, haven’t been coming,” he said. “We’re not as wealthy. We don’t have as many ventilators, we don’t have as many doctors, our health system was in a precarious position before coronavirus.”

“The country is terrified,” he added.

To address the problem, South Africa’s National Health Laboratory Services has set up a “war room” of around 20 people who are continuously calling different suppliers — yet running into problems sourcing the test kits and protective equipment they need.


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