Should Africa prepare for a novel coronavirus outbreak?

Hot on the heels of declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, The World Health Organization is scaling up preparedness efforts for the virus in the African region. It is also supporting countries to implement recommendations outlined by the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee which met in Geneva, Switzerland on 30 January.

The Emergency Committee recommends that all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV infection, and to share full data with WHO.

No reported cases of coronavirus in Africa

While WHO is supporting countries to investigate a number of alerts, there continues to be no reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the African region. However, there are many links between China and the African continent.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, has sent out a guidance note to all countries on how to prepare for a possible novel coronavirus outbreak.

‘It is critical that countries step up their readiness and in particular put in place effective screening mechanisms at airports and other major points of entry to ensure that the first cases are detected quickly,’ says Dr Moeti. ‘The quicker countries can detect cases, the faster they will be able to contain an outbreak and ensure the novel coronavirus does not overwhelm health systems.’

Rapid confirmation or ruling out novel coronavirus cases, establishing a platform for isolating suspected or confirmed cases, getting good information out to the public and pre-positioning supplies are all important actions for countries to undertake.

South Africa has direct links to China

WHO has identified 13 top priority countries (Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) which either have direct links or a high volume of travel to China. Active screening at airports has been established in a majority of these countries and while they will be WHO first areas of focus, the organisation will support all countries in the region in their preparation efforts.

To ensure rapid detection of the novel coronavirus, it is important to have laboratories which can test samples and WHO is supporting countries to improve their testing capacity. Since this is a new virus, there are currently only two referral laboratories in the African region which have the reagents needed to conduct such tests. However, reagent kits are being shipped to more than 20 other countries in the region, so diagnostic capacity is expected to increase over the coming days.

What is coronavirus?

The coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which cause illnesses similar to influenza. The region has made considerable progress in preparing for an influenza pandemic. This includes strengthening surveillance, as well as updating and testing national influenza pandemic preparedness plans. The preparatory groundwork that has already taken place for a flu pandemic is being built upon to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak in the region.

‘A new and unknown virus is often scary and many people are worried,’ says Dr Moeti. ‘This is understandable. But all efforts to combat the novel coronavirus must be based on sound science. WHO does not recommend travel or trade restrictions as the social disruption and intensive use of resources they cause often far outweigh the potential benefits.’

WHO recommends that to protect against the novel virus, people should practice good hand and respiratory hygiene and safe food practices. These include washing hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing, avoiding close contact with anyone with flu-like symptoms, cooking food, especially meat, thoroughly and avoiding direct unprotected contact with live animals.

As of the 30 January 2020, there were 7818 confirmed cases globally, with the vast majority in China.