Operator groups MTN, Vodacom, Airtel Africa and Orange backed a United Nations (UN) digital health platform designed to transmit information related to Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreaks between authorities and more than 600 million mobile users.

The Africa Communication and Information Platform for Health and Economic Action was launched by the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and will be initially available across 36 countries, with plans to extend further as other authorities sign-up.

Launching the service, the ECA said it provided two-way communication between citizens and health authorities, and had the potential to reach 80 per cent of Africa’s mobile users at no cost to the individual.

MTN Group CEO Rob Shuter said operators had agreed to waive charges for the USSD-based service as “chances are that many people battling the pandemic in some rural areas may not have airtime”, adding the company and its competitors could “agree that this was an area for collaboration and cooperation”.

One of the platform’s primary use cases is to collect health information from individuals, allowing authorities to identify local outbreaks and virus hotspots. It also provides advice and support to those affected.

International Telcommunication Union secretary general Houlin Zhao urged regulators across Africa to back the platform, noting use of AI and big data were “at the heart” of it.

Other parties involved in the project include Safaricom, Smart Africa, The African Union, The World Bank, and The World Health Organisation.