Coronavirus tests could be ready ‘within weeks’ across Africa

Across Africa, steps are being taken to prepare for — and to reduce the effects of — the spread of the new coronavirus. Testing laboratories are being supplied, quarantine and hospital treatment facilities are being readied for patients, and public health advisories have been issued.

As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads to more areas, a health worker checks a man’s temperature at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Duhok, Iraq, last Tuesday.

And the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa says she expects that all nations in sub-Saharan Africa will be able to test for the coronavirus “within a couple of weeks”.

Matshidiso Moeti told the BBC that 33 countries in the region already had the facilities in place. A month ago only Senegal and South Africa did.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has hurried to train its 54 member countries in testing for the virus. At the start of February, just two African countries had the capability to test; now the number is more than two dozen.

Many African countries had experience with trying to prevent the spread of the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak that ended in 2016. Global health experts point to that as a sign of preparedness in this outbreak. The Africa CDC was created in response to the Ebola outbreak, and many countries established public health institutes.

With the new virus case announced in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 190 million people and numerous air links around the continent and beyond, other nations warned of possible spread.

Still, the World Health Organization has said that 80% of people who catch the new virus will only experience mild symptoms. The death rate is about 2% and the disease appears to be most severe in people over 60 with underlying health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure.

So far there are no confirmed cases of the virus in East Africa, where authorities in recent days have sought to scale up their preparedness efforts as the death toll from the virus has gone up around the world. Regional governments, which rely heavily on trade and business ties with China, are scrambling to take measures that control the spread of the virus but may harm their economies.