Egypt's Health Ministry has confirmed the first case of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country, which is also the first such case in Africa.
In a statement on 14 February, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mugahed said the person was a “foreigner" who is carrying the virus but not showing any serious symptoms, reported Reuters.
Officials were able to confirm the case through a follow-up programme the government implemented for travellers arriving from countries where the virus has spread. The ministry statement said the person was hospitalised and in isolation.
The worldwide death toll from the virus epidemic has exceeded 1,600, almost exclusively in China where it was first identified.
Several African countries have reported suspected cases in the two months since the virus first emerged in China, but none have been confirmed until the case in Egypt.
Deep trade links with China and often overstretched healthcare systems have raised concerns about the capacity of African countries to respond to an outbreak.
Egypt took some precautions after the outbreak was revealed. On 28 January, the Importers Division at the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce warned Egyptian importers, estimated at around 60,000, against travelling to China.
The country’s national carrier, EgyptAir, said on 30 January that it was suspending its flights from and to mainland China until 29 February. The suspension began on 1 February.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern about the capabilities of healthcare systems in Africa to handle the virus crisis.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said, “I have a great concern that if this virus makes it to a weaker health system, it will create havoc.”
WHO has identified 13 priority countries in Africa with strong links to China and has dispatched experts to eight of these to help coordinate preparedness efforts. The priority countries have all introduced screenings at airports, as well as some seaports, according to WHO.These countries are: Algeria, Angola, Côte d'Ivoire, DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
Officials in Africa are rushing to train health workers, enhance screening at airports and set up laboratories in all 54 African states to detect the virus. At least 19 African nations are now able to test for COVID-19, WHO said.
WHO is hosting meetings with governments and NGOs to provide updates on the situation and outline preparedness measures. Some of the structures already in place for the Ebola response could be scaled up for a COVID-19 outbreak.