Scientists Worry About Coronavirus Spread in Africa
‘A ticking time bomb’: Scientists worry about coronavirus spread in Africa
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—Late on Sunday evening, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a televised address to the nation, declared that COVID-19, the respiratory disease spreading globally, had become a “national disaster.” The declaration allows his government to access special funding and instigate harsh regulations to combat the viral outbreak. “Never before in the history of our democracy have we been confronted by such a severe situation,” Ramaphosa said before announcing a raft of measures to curb the virus’ spread, including school closures, travel restrictions, and bans on large gatherings.
So far, the official numbers seemed to suggest that sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than 1 billion people, had been lucky. The interactive map of reported COVID-19 cases run by Johns Hopkins University shows big red blobs almost everywhere—except sub-Saharan Africa.
But now the numbers are rising quickly. South Africa, which had its first case 10 days ago, now has 61. According to Ramaphosa, the virus has begun spreading inside the country. And just yesterday, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea, and Namibia all reported their first cases, bringing the number of affected countries to 23. Some scientists believe COVID-19 is circulating silently in other countries as well. “My concern is that we have this ticking time bomb,” says Bruce Bassett, a data scientist at the University of Cape Town who has been tracking COVID-19 data since January.
And although Africa’s handling of the pandemic has received scant global attention so far, experts worry the virus may ravage countries with weak health systems and a population disproportionately affected by HIV, tuberculosis (TB), and other infectious diseases. “Social distancing” will be hard to do in the continent’s overcrowded cities and slums.
We really have no idea how COVID-19 will behave in Africa,” says pediatrician and HIV researcher Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council. Last month, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is Ethiopian, said his “biggest concern” was COVID-19 spreading in countries with weak health systems.
Sub-Saharan Africa detected its first case only on 27 February, in an Italian man who had traveled to Nigeria. Most other cases since then were imported from Europe; fewer came from the Americas and Asia. But until today, there were no examples of community spread.
That’s not simply because of a lack of testing. More than 40 countries in Africa now have the ability to test for COVID-19, up from only two during the early stages of the outbreak in China. But the focus of African COVID-19 surveillance has been at countries’ points of entry, and testing has targeted people with a recent travel history to outbreak areas abroad. However, screening passengers for fever has shown to be largely ineffective, because it doesn’t catch people still in their incubation phase—up to 14 days for COVID-19. It also won’t detect cases that occur in African communities. “I do think that cases are slipping through the net. There is an urgent need to investigate and address this point,” says Francine Ntoumi, a parasitologist and public health expert at Marien Ngouabi University in the Republic of Congo.