Future-proofing labs to save lives in Zimbabwe

March 6, 2023

Laboratories test and certify medicines and medical products used to fight HIV, TB and malaria to ensure they meet international health and safety standards

Laboratories operate behind the scenes but play a vital role in fighting HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. Quality control laboratories test medical supplies to provide doctors and patients with safe and effective medicines and products such as medical gloves. They combat falsified and substandard antimalarial medications, which cause 267,000 deaths in sub-Saharan Africa per year, and are key components of a strong health system. 

In Zimbabwe, quality assurance services are managed by the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ), the national medicine regulation agency. With Global Fund financing, UNDP has supported MCAZ since 2009 to certify the prevention, testing and treatment products used to fight HIV, TB and malaria. 

Like other quality control laboratories, MCAZ must follow World Health Organization (WHO) best practices that ensure its services can be used with confidence. Since 2018, UNDP has supported MCAZ to upgrade its microbiology laboratory, which tests medical gloves and condoms. Upgrades included specialized ventilation systems that prevent airborne contaminants from compromising medical samples and test results. UNDP also provided technical guidance for developing and documenting laboratory processes and procedures, in line with international standards. In addition, UNDP supported the National Pharmacovigilance Centre to monitor and report negative side effects from medicines and vaccines. 

MCAZ’s chemistry laboratory, which tests essential medicines, gained WHO prequalification in 2014 with UNDP support, becoming the sixth laboratory in sub-Saharan Africa to obtain this status. Prequalification recognizes a laboratory’s expertise and capacity to assess medical products and officially report when products fall short of international quality and safety standards. Today, the laboratory tests medications used across Southern Africa, providing an important regional service for effectively treating HIV, TB and malaria. 

Following its refurbishment, the microbiology laboratory resumed operations in 2020 and is awaiting prequalification. WHO approval would confirm progress made to strengthen Zimbabwe’s health system, while further supporting laboratory services to respond to future disease outbreaks in the region.  

“UNDP’s partnership with MCAZ supported structural renovations, new equipment and furnishings and training for the chemistry laboratory, which led to WHO prequalification. We also worked together to upgrade our microbiology lab in preparation for prequalification. The partnership has supported a 300% increase in testing volume, from 300 tests performed in 2014 to 1200 tests per year today,” said Richard Rukwata, Director-General of MCAZ. 

MCAZ laboratories underpin patient safety, providing a life-saving service to Zimbabweans and beyond. But frequent power cuts in Harare interrupted laboratory operations. MCAZ relied on diesel generators during blackouts, which increased pollution, operating costs and delays that put medical supply chains at risk.  

UNDP responded by supporting MCAZ with a solar energy system, as part of its Solar for Health initiative. Operational by 2022, the system enables continuous and more productive laboratory functions by supplementing electricity from Zimbabwe’s national grid. The renewable energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions and will generate revenue when excess power is fed back into the national network.  

“The solar installations have improved power run-time during power outages, permitting uninterrupted operations and contributing to MCAZ output,” Rukwata added. 

With Global Fund support, UNDP partners with the Government of Zimbabwe to defeat HIV, TB and malaria and achieve a more equitable, healthier and sustainable future. UNDP is supporting Zimbabwe to build a stronger and more resilient health system that can withstand health challenges and provide life-saving health services in the future.  

UNDP supports people with the good health they need to thrive and leaves lasting contributions to Zimbabwe’s efforts to end poverty, strengthen democratic governance, build resilience and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.