Passengers arrive from Hong Kong at Cape Town International after being screened by health officials folowing the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. January 29, 2019. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Passengers arrive from Hong Kong at Cape Town International after being screened by health officials folowing the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. January 29, 2019. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

SA is on high alert for the new coronavirus that emerged in China earlier in January, and can detect and contain any cases that may be imported into the country, health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday.

The rapidly evolving epidemic of the flu-like virus, known as 2019-nCov, had by Wednesday spread from China to more than a dozen countries around the world, including the US, France, Australia and many of China’s neighbours. Chinese authorities had confirmed more than 5,900 cases, and 132 deaths, but experts say the actual number of people who have contracted the virus may be much higher as those with mild symptoms may not have been detected. No cases have yet been confirmed in Africa.

The coronavirus has hammered international markets amid fears it will disrupt international trade and travel, and seen several airlines suspend or cut the number their flights to China in the face of falling demand. British Airways, and budget carriers Lion Air and Seoul Air are among those halting flights, while Cathay Pacific, Jetstar Pacific and Finnair have cut back.

“SA has responded rapidly to ensure the coronavirus does not become a national threat,” Mkhize said at an early morning briefing.

The emergency operations centre at the National Institutes of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has been placed on high alert, provinces have activated outbreak teams, and port health authorities have stepped up their surveillance of travellers arriving from China and other affected regions, said Mkhize.

“This is an area of paramount concern,” he said, adding that travellers on direct flights from China were being asked to provide details that would enable contact tracing, should the need arise.

On January 29 2020, South Africans returning from China at Cape Town International Airport described living through the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.

Guidelines have been provided to health-care professionals on how to manage suspected cases of coronavirus, and a 24-hour hotline for clinicians has been established at the NICD.

The government has also reconvened a multisectoral national outbreak response team that includes representatives from the WHO, the private health sector, and the government departments of health, tourism, home affairs, agriculture, international relations and tourism, said Mkhize.

The government has no immediate plans to evacuate the 35 South Africans known to be in Wuhan, in Hubei province, which is at the centre of China’s epidemic, said Mkhize. Chinese authorities have put strict travel restrictions in place to try to contain the spread of the virus, and the city of Wuhan is on virtual lockdown.

Japan and the US have already repatriated hundreds of their citizens from in and around Wuhan, while Britain, the EU, Australia and South Korea are expected to shortly follow suit.

“The government of the People’s Republic of China has reassured us that there is no evidence to support the necessity to evacuate foreign nationals living in Wuhan city,” said Mkhize.

“Foreign nationals who need medical assistance for whatever reason will be treated like Chinese citizens and be afforded all the medical care necessary. Embassies are enabled to support those locked out and locked inside Wuhan,” he said.

Mkhize said the WHO had not recommended restrictions on travel and trade with China, but the government was recommending that non-essential travel to Wuhan should be avoided or postponed.

“Currently, Wuhan is essentially quarantined and all public transport has been closed,” he said.

The NICD’s director for meningitis and respiratory diseases, Cheryl Cohen, said the institute would provide testing and technical support to other African countries.

She emphasised that there have been no suspected or confirmed cases in SA to date, and that SA is prepared to respond to 2019-nCov. Should cases be confirmed in SA, severely ill patients would be isolated in hospital, but milder cases could be quarantined at home, she said.

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