Passengers arrive from Hong Kong at Cape Town International Airport on January 29 2020. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Passengers arrive from Hong Kong at Cape Town International Airport on January 29 2020. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Africa’s capacity for tackling the coronavirus that emerged in China in January was improving rapidly, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on Thursday, as the global number of cases of the respiratory illness rose beyond 28,000.

Countries around the world are on high alert after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a global health emergency last week due to its rapid spread.

No confirmed cases had been identified in Africa by 5pm on Thursday, despite a steady uptick in the number of countries reporting cases of the new virus, known as 2019-nCov.

By this stage there had been more than 28,085 confirmed cases and 563 deaths in mainland China, according to data published by the US Johns Hopkins Centre for Systems Science and Engineering. A further 259 cases and two deaths had been confirmed in 27 other countries.

“The resources are more limited in Africa, and the response would be more challenging but there has been excellent progress in many settings,” the CDC’s Barbara Marston said in a telephone briefing from the US on Thursday afternoon.

The number of African laboratories that could do testing had increased, and there was good co-operation between African nations to ensure that countries without domestic capabilities could refer specimens to facilities in other countries, she said.

“I am not aware of any confirmed cases, but I am aware of numerous legitimate suspect cases that have been managed well and tested,” said Marston.

SA’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases is one of only two reference laboratories in Africa that provide testing for other countries. The other laboratory is the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal. However, another 24 African countries were expected to have their own testing capacity by the end of the week, according to the WHO’s programme manager for emergency operations in Africa, Michel Yao.

The CDC was preparing for the possibility that the novel coronavirus that emerged in China six weeks ago will become a pandemic, but “hoping it will not”, said Marston.

Earlier this week 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.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appealed on Wednesday for $675m in donations to fund a plan for fighting the virus, with investments targeted at countries considered to be at highest risk.

He said his greatest concern was that the disease would spread to countries that did not have the systems in place to detect people who can contract the virus, but there was a “window of opportunity” to contain it.

“Invest today or pay more later,” he said at a press briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $100m to global efforts to tackle the coronavirus. In a statement released on Wednesday, it said it was increasing its funding from the $10m committed in January to help strengthen detection, isolation and treatment efforts, assist populations at risk in Asia and Africa, and develop vaccines, treatments and diagnostics.

“Multilateral organisations, national governments, the private sector and philanthropies must work together to slow the pace of the outbreak, help countries protect their most vulnerable citizens and accelerate the development of the tools to bring this epidemic under control,” said Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman.

“Our hope is that these resources will help catalyse a rapid and effective international response. This response should be guided by science, not fear, and it should build on the steps that the WHO has taken to date,” he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za