African countries braced for 'inevitable' arrival of coronavirus

Health centres step up preparations as World Health Organization raises fears about ability to cope with major outbreak

African health authorities are stepping up preparedness for coronavirus after the head of the World Health Organzation described the outbreak as a “very grave threat for the rest of the world”.

Although the number of cases in China appeared to have stabilised and started to decline, “this outbreak could still go in any direction,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday.

Speaking after the WHO’s decision not to describe the status of the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a public health emergency of international concern, Tedros emphasised the need to improve health systems against the new coronavirus and other deadly outbreaks.

“Our greatest fear remains the damage the coronavirus could do in a country like DRC,” he said.

Around the world, there are now more than 60,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection, as the disease is now being called officially, and almost 1,400 deaths.

But the numbers outside China are relatively small, with just over 500 cases in 24 countries and one death in the Philippines. Person-to-person transmission outside China was still happening in only about 22% of cases, said Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies.

“We have a window of opportunity to shut this virus down.”

Ryan also urged caution after one Chinese scientist predicted that the epidemic would be over by April. Huge efforts by China to contain the virus may have had an effect, but while the slowdown – and the apparently less aggressive behaviour of the virus outside China – buys time, it does not necessarily mean it will be brought under control.

“It is no guarantee,” he said. “We are not going to speak about numbers or dates. We need to focus on the task. I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, middle or the end of this epidemic right now.”

The number of African countries that can test for the virus tripled to 15 this week, with more expected to have testing labs up and running in the coming days. The head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said health centres were on “high alert” for new cases.

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