Abasi Ene-Obong, 54Gene founder and CEO

Health and biotech company 54Gene has raised $500,000 for a fund aimed at improving Nigeria’s capacity to carry out tests for COVID-19.

The money raised for the Nigeria COVID-19 Testing Support Fund will ramp up testing for the disease by up to 1,000 additional tests a day, the company said.

The improved capacity will be achieved by buying testing instruments, biosafety cabinets, personal protective equipment and other materials for the safety of health workers and caregivers involved in Nigeria’s response effort.

Fundraising is still in progress to raise the capacity to 5,000 tests per day.

Since its founding in 2019, 54Gene has gained praise for an out-of-the box business capable of putting Africa on the global healthcare map. The startup secured a $4.5 million seed funding barely 7 months after it launched. The sum was raised from investors like YCombinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Hack VC and Techammer.

At its core, the company is focused on creating the largest biobank of pan-African DNA in the world. It is a mission that could have a crucial impact on drug development, disease detection and quality of life on the continent.

54Gene launched the fund on Thursday with $150,000. Other donors like Union Bank, a first generation Nigerian financial institution, helped to boost the amount to $500,000.

The fund will be managed to assist Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in conducting more tests across the country. 54Gene will work with the NCDC and other stakeholders to start purchasing the necessary equipment and materials within days.

The purchased equipment will be installed in public hospitals and laboratories across Nigeria. When the pandemic passes, they will remain in those locations for use by medical researchers and clinicians in case of any future outbreaks, the company said.

54Gene CEO Abasi Ene-Obong said the initiative for the fund was an expression of his company’s “extremely ambitious mission” to expand Nigeria’s testing capacity. He expects that the effort will increase the present rate by no less than 10 times in the coming weeks.

That could go some way in quelling public dissatisfaction with the pace of testing in Nigeria. While the number of identified cases stands at 65 giving the impression of relatively low spread, only 333 tests have been conducted.

By contrast, South Africa has carried out more than 20,000 tests. A crucial distinction between both countries has been that private sector medical outfits have been allowed to conduct tests. In Nigeria, there are only 5  accredited labs.

The NCDC has welcomed 54Gene’s help in increasing its potential to do more tests.

“This is the kind of support we need. Identify a problem, run with it and include a sustainability plan in your solution. We are very grateful for this new partnership with 54gene at a critical point in our health security,” Chikwe Ihekweazu, Director General of NCDC, said.  

Test and case numbers correct as at 2pm on March 27, 2020.
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