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Some African countries at risk for the new coronavirus aren’t prepared

Some African countries at risk for the new coronavirus aren’t prepared

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Egypt, Algeria, and South Africa are most likely to import the virus, a new model shows

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Scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, research the new coronavirus.
Photo by SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

A handful of countries in Africa are at a high risk of importing the new coronavirus because of the volume of air traffic between those countries and China, a new model shows. But some aren’t well-prepared to deal with infections if they arrive.

Right now, Africa only has one confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, after a person in Egypt tested positive for the virus last week. But global public health experts have been concerned about the potential for a wider spread in African countries.

“Our greatest concern is about the potential for spread in countries with weaker health systems,” Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a press conference at the start of February. If the virus arrives in a country already strained by other diseases — for example, Congo, which is still fighting an Ebola outbreak — it will be even harder to control.

Early in the month, only two African countries — Senegal and South Africa — had the laboratory capability to test people for the new coronavirus. The WHO distributed testing kits, and by the end of this week, 40 countries are expected to be able to run tests on suspected cases.

China has spent the past decade investing in and strengthening its economic relationship with Africa, which pushed the number of flights between them up by over 600 percent during that same time period.

Despite that jump, there are still more flights from China to Europe than to Africa. That means it’s still more likely that air travel routes would bring the virus to Europe, and current case numbers in both places reflect that. There are 47 cases in Europe, for example, compared with one in Africa. Europe, though, is better able to respond.

A team of researchers used data on air travel between various parts of China (excluding Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, which instituted travel bans early on) and countries in Africa to predict which were most likely to import the virus. The analysis, published this week in The Lancet, found that Egypt, Algeria, and South Africa were at the highest risk. However, all three have a fairly strong ability to respond to infectious threats, and the demographic, social, and political environments offer the population some protection against epidemics.

Nigeria and Ethiopia had a slightly lower risk of importing the virus, but they would be more vulnerable if they did based on their demographic, social, and political environments. Both countries also have larger populations, which increases the impact the virus might have. Morocco, Sudan, Angola, Tanzania, Ghana, and Kenya were also at moderate risk and would be vulnerable in an epidemic.

The results tracked with the countries the WHO considered priorities, based on high volumes of air travel to China. Algeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Nigeria are all on the WHO list. There were some differences, though: the WHO didn’t include Egypt, which the Lancet analysis concluded was at the highest risk.

“Our findings should help to inform urgent prioritisation for intensified support for preparedness and response in specific African countries found to be at moderate to high risk of importation of COVID-19 and with relatively low capacity to manage the health emergency,” the authors wrote.

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