Africa can avoid becoming the next coronavirus centre, says Africa CDC chief

Case numbers may be increasing, but it is not too late to take action, he said

A child walks past an informational mural depicting the new coronavirus and warning people to sanitize to prevent its spread, painted by graffiti artists from the Mathare Roots youth group, in the Mathare informal settlement, of Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
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If the right action is taken as soon as possible, Africa can avoid becoming the next centre of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the director of the continent's Centres for Disease Control said.

Intensive contact tracing and testing is crucial in slowing the spread of the virus, Dr John Nkengasong said in a press briefing on Thursday.

“We don’t necessarily need to be the next epicentre as long as we do the right things,” he said, referring to tracking and testing deployment.

The continent has seen a 43 per cent increase in infections this week, with more than 25,000 cases.

"We are concerned that the virus continues to spread geographically, within countries," said Matshidiso Moeti, director for WHO's Africa region to Reuters last week. "The numbers continue to increase every day."

But Dr Nkengasong praised South Africa’s “very aggressive” approach to testing. The country now has 3,635 cases, the second highest number on the continent after Egypt’s 3,659, having conducted over 126,000 tests, according to government figures.

Dr Nkengasong’s comments came after a provisional WHO model showed coronavirus cases in Africa could shoot up to 10 million within three to six months. But Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for WHO Africa, said the projection still needed to be “fine tuned” and noted worst-case predictions for the Ebola outbreak had not come true because people changed behaviour in time.

Referring to the study, Dr Nkengasong said: "It’s not a prediction that says it must happen," adding countries were being advised "you test, you track, you test and you trace."

"That is the only way to stay ahead of the curve," he added.

In the two months since the continent began mobilising to fight the outbreak, less than 500,000 tests have been conducted on a population of more than 1 billion. That’s just 325 people tested per 1 million people, Dr Nkengasong said. That’s far lower than Italy, one of the world’s worst-hit countries, he said by way of comparison.

In an effort to beat those predictions, Africa CDC last week launched week a programme which intends to distribute one million tests to African nations in the space of a month and 10 million in 24 weeks. The organisation is also working to train and deploy one million community health workers to build trust and educate populations on how to prevent the spread of the disease.

Dr Nkengasong said tests had already begun being rolled out to African nations, along with masks and other equipment donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, on flights taking off from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.