ADDIS ABABA - African countries are scaling up their ability to detect the coronavirus as fears mount that the continent's first confirmed case could soon be announced.
With more than 64,000 cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed across the globe, officials in Africa are rushing to train health workers, enhance screening at airports and set up laboratories in all 54 African states to detect the virus.
"As we speak today, more than 16 countries now have that capacity to test," John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday. "And by the 20th of this month, an additional 20 labs — that is 16 plus 20 — will have the capacity to test. So, we are scaling up very rapidly across the continent in terms of diagnostics. As we speak here now there is a training going on in Nairobi, Kenya, on enhanced surveillance at airports and ports of entry screening. Over 40 countries will be trained in two sets."
Despite the efforts to prevent the spread of the disease, Nkengasong said there is a possibility the coronavirus has already entered Africa.
"I think that should remain a possibility because of our weak surveillance systems that might not be picking up cases," he said. "But we also know that the entire continent is at a very heightened state of preparedness and alertness."
Several African countries have reported suspected cases in the two months since the virus first emerged in China, but none have been confirmed.
Nkengasong underscored the risk, should the coronavirus be found in Africa.
"We are seeing what is happening in China, that even with the amount of resources, that in China it has been a struggle," he said. "This is a fast-evolving and fast-replicating virus. So, if the virus was to hit a fragile state in Africa, the concern is that the consequences would be very, very devastating."
Students in Wuhan
The Africa CDC called on African governments to bring back students trapped in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, after the government locked down the city.
Nkengasong said it could easily become a humanitarian crisis if students in China run low on supplies. However, some African governments have been reluctant to evacuate their nationals in Wuhan because of weaker surveillance and health care systems back home.