Nigerian biotechnologist Eddy Agbo is the founder and CEO of the Fyodor Biotechnologies Corporation, and the man behind the do-it-yourself Urine Malaria Test. The product was released last year and can test for the malaria parasite plasmodium in less than 25 minutes. But what makes it so special is it does not require a blood sample to do so.
According to the World Health Organisation, there were about 214 million cases of malaria globally in 2015 and an estimated 438,000 deaths. However, 91% of these deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria having one of the highest burdens.
Having grown up in Nigeria, Agbo contracted malaria multiple times from a young age. Diagnosis back then required a trained professional who had to inspect blood under a microscope in a certified lab. This costly and time-consuming process meant many opted to simply treat any possible symptom of malaria, usually fever. Innovations over the last decade have seen the process simplified with rapid blood-testing products. But Africa’s shortage of healthcare facilities and personnel means these are still not readily available to many people.
However, Agbo’s urine test is a potential game-changer. It works similarly to a pregnancy test and for the first time allows the general population to diagnose themselves. It is already available in Nigeria at medical centres, pharmacies, as well as on two leading online retailers, Jumia and Konga.
The invention has earned Agbo a nomination for this year’s Innovation Prize for Africa.
At the moment a pack of five urine tests for malaria retails for ₦2,500 (about US$12) on Jumia, and Agbo says the product is sold for roughly $2 per test elsewhere. However, he notes the price will fall as the company begins to manufacture at scale.
While some blood-based rapid diagnostic tests for malaria in the market are sold for under $1, Agbo explains they are usually highly subsidised and do not take into account the additional costs of testing through the healthcare system – such as taking time off work to travel to a clinic for diagnosis.
“But our goal now is to continue to look at efforts around bringing down costs for the end user… So as the Urine Malaria Test becomes more and more accepted, I believe it will also come within that subsidised product range and we can begin to realise those savings also for the end user.”
Although the test kits are currently manufactured in the US, he adds the company is “making efforts” to establish production to Nigeria. Fyodor has labs in both Maryland and Lagos.
Expanding to Africa
Fyodor’s urine test is currently only available in Nigeria but the goal is to expand to other markets on the continent and elsewhere. However, Africa’s fragmented regulatory environment poses challenges and pharmaceutical companies often face delays with registering new healthcare products.
“Registration and distribution in Africa is something that we are working on, and we are trying to understand all the regulatory requirements for the different countries,” says Victoria Enwemadu, Fyodor’s global head of projects.
“Nigeria has the highest burden of malaria cases – so our initial strategy is to begin with Nigeria, gain a few lessons, and then start to register and distribute throughout sub-Saharan Africa… So we are very interested in distributing in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
Key to this would be distributing via the informal retail market, where the vast majority of shopping takes place. According to Enwemadu, the Nigerian government is educating informal medicine and pharmaceutical retailers on various products – including Fyodor’s.
“So the government has actually embarked on training this informal sector on how to use rapid diagnostic tests. They have also been alerting them to this new urine test that we have come up with. So we are very much engaged in the informal sector. It is definitely an area where we plan to do more work,” continues Edwemadu.
“Africa is really the ground zero for malaria,” adds Agbo. “It is the region most impacted by it and a proper tool like this could have a brilliant myriad of advantages to the healthcare provider, to the policy maker, as well as to just regular individuals who may want to buy the test and check whether their fever is malaria or not.”