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

The likelihood of a coronavirus outbreak in Africa was “very, very high,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned on Tuesday, as cases of the respiratory illness that emerged in China last month soared past the 20,000 mark.

There have been no confirmed cases of the virus so far in Africa, but suspected victims have been quarantined in Ethiopia, Kenya, Ivory Coast and Botswana. Countries around the world are on high alert after the WHO declared it a global health emergency last week due to its rapid spread.

The WHO said it had prioritised SA and 12 other African countries for support with screening and surveillance due to their direct links or high travel volumes with China. The other countries are Algeria, Angola,  Cote d’Ivoire, the DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Early detection was vital to contain the virus and prevent a large number of cases that would overwhelm weak health systems, said WHO Africa head of emergency preparedness Ambrose Talisuna.

African countries are moving rapidly to develop their own capacity to test for the novel coronavirus, said WHO programme manager for emergency operations in Africa Michel Yao. SA’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases and Senegal’s Institut Pasteur are the only referral laboratories on the continent, and have been testing for other countries, but on Tuesday four more countries reported they could do tests themselves: Ghana, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.

“By the end of the week, we expect that an additional 24 countries will receive the reagents needed to conduct the tests and will have the test running,” said Yao.

The virus causes flu-like symptoms. While it appears many of the cases reported outside China are mild, it can cause severe breathing problems, organ failure or death.

China said on Monday that it had more than 20,000 confirmed cases of the new virus, known as 2019-nCov, more than three times the 4,400 cases reported last week. Altogether 153 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in 23 countries other than China by Monday, according to the WHO.

Slightly higher figures are being reported by the Johns Hopkins Centre for Systems Science and Engineering in the US, which is tracking the spread of the virus in real time. It is drawing on publicly available data sources, including the WHO, China’s national health commission, and the US Centres for Disease Control.

At 4pm on Tuesday, it was reporting a global total of 20,680 cases, 427 deaths and 723 recoveries. All but two of the deaths were in China. One death had been reported in the Philippines and another in Hong Kong.

Yao said the supply of face masks was a challenge. Health care workers and people caring for patients should be prioritised. The WHO was trying to ensure the people managing the outbreak had the appropriate protective equipment, and it was working with manufacturers to ensure critical items were available, he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za