Morocco Develops Africa’s First Cancer Tests

African nations have long been plagued by inadequate health infrastructure, with the entire continent reliant on imports for pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and diagnostic tests. While there is still a long way to go, the next few months will see Morocco make the first African-produced cancer diagnostics commercially available, dramatically slashing prices and waiting times for patients.

The Moroccan Foundation for Advanced Science, Innovation and Research – MASciR – has been working on the development of diagnostic tests for breast cancer and leukaemia for over a decade. This year, they’re finally ready to hit the market.

Currently, African countries import diagnostic kits for cancer and other diseases, usually from Europe or the US. After being used, samples often had to be sent back overseas for analysis, making the entire process much longer than it needed to be, and much more expensive.

Africa has about 375 drug manufacturers to provide for a population of 1.1billion. In contrast, China, with a population of 1.4billion, has 5,000 drug providers.

“The price of the kit can be double that of what it would cost to manufacture it locally,” says Hassan Sefrioui, a MASciR executive board member. “It is also a long process. It can take weeks or months for the kits to arrive.”

The high costs and waiting times are significant deterrents to sick citizens. Breast cancer is Morocco’s most prevalent cancer, and its leading cause of death for women. While breast cancer is prolific worldwide, in most higher-income countries it is diagnosed early, and has high survival rates.

But in low- and mid-income countries, including Morocco, it isn’t detected until much later, when treatment is harder and survival is less likely.

Unfortunately, even when they do seek diagnosis and treatment early, many Africans are still unable to get the quality of healthcare they need, because of the continent’s overreliance on medical imports.

Around 70% of pharmaceuticals used in Africa are imported from abroad, and up to 99% of vaccines. As COVID showed, this kind of over-dependence leaves African countries extremely vulnerable to supply-chain shocks.

“The continent was entirely dependent on the outside at the start of the pandemic,” says Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases. “We could not even produce simple diagnostics.”

Luckily, there is momentum both within the continent and in the global medical community to support improvements in African healthcare.

Just last year, the African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation was launched, with the purpose of expanding medical manufacturing production capacity. A number of African countries have eliminated various neglected tropical diseases: in 2022, Togo stamped out trachoma, and sleeping sickness was eradicated in Benin, Rwanda and Uganda.

MASciR’s diagnostics are a part of this wave; their leukaemia tests have already been used in Morocco on 400 people. And those in the vanguard are optimistic about their future. “What I’m envisioning is the long-term impact,” said Yenew Kebede Tebeje, head of laboratory systems at the African CDC.

Cover image: “Mascir logo” by is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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