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Egyptian quarantine officers prepare to screen travellers arriving at Cairo’s airport. The country has reported its first coronavirus case. Photo: AFP

Egypt reports first case of coronavirus in Africa amid fears for poorer nations

  • Authorities say a foreigner tested positive without any symptoms and has been isolated in hospital in stable condition
  • WHO is racing to equip laboratories so they can test for the virus and avert an outbreak on the continent, which has close ties with China
Africa has reported its first case of the new coronavirus that has so far claimed more than 1,600 lives, with Egypt’s health ministry confirming that a foreigner had tested positive there.

Health experts and African leaders have expressed concern that poorer countries may struggle to cope if the virus spread to the continent. Fears for nations with weaker health systems prompted the World Health Organisation to declare the outbreak of the virus – which originated in China – a global public health emergency in January.

Its director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week said the WHO was racing to equip laboratories in vulnerable African countries with the “capacity to rapidly diagnose cases” to avert an outbreak.

The WHO and Egypt’s health ministry on Friday confirmed the country’s first case was a foreign national who had been isolated in hospital and was in stable condition. Health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said the patient had tested positive for the virus without any symptoms, and the WHO had been informed and measures taken to limit its spread.

The WHO said its Egypt office was working closely with health officials in the North African nation, taking “outbreak investigation and response actions”.

The country’s Eastern Mediterranean neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, had reported eight cases, the WHO said.

The virus, which causes a disease known as Covid-19, has infected more than 68,000 people since the outbreak began in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and it has spread to more than 20 countries.

The first case in Africa comes as countries on the continent have stepped up screening at border checkpoints to prevent the spread of the pneumonia-like illness. Many countries have imposed restrictions on travel to and from mainland China, while six out of eight African airlines with Chinese routes have halted flights until the virus is contained, including EgyptAir.

Egypt has suspended all flights to and from China until the end of the month and has evacuated more than 300 Egyptians from Wuhan.

Egyptian Health Minister Hala Zayed waits with a medical team at Alexandria’s airport to meet passengers evacuated from Wuhan on February 3. Photo: Reuters

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said the Addis Ababa-based organisation was “on standby to work closely with the government of Egypt to rapidly contain the spread of the virus”.

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African nations are also equipping laboratories so that they can test for the virus, with the help of the WHO and others.

Until about two weeks ago, there were only two laboratories in the continent of 54 countries – in Senegal and South Africa – with the reagents needed to test for the coronavirus.

That meant dozens of countries that had quarantined suspected patients were sending samples to South Africa or Senegal to be tested. Since then, four more labs have been equipped – in Ghana, Nigeria, Madagascar and Sierra Leone – to test for the virus, according to the WHO.


The global health body has also sent testing kits to Cameroon, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.

Tedros on Monday said the WHO’s immediate “objective remains containment. We call on all countries to use the window of opportunity we have to prevent a bigger fire”.


The Africa CDC has trained health workers from 12 countries in early detection and prevention in Senegal, using testing kits sent by the WHO. Further training would take place in South Africa next week, Tedros said.

“Without vital diagnostic capacity, countries are in the dark as to how far and wide the virus has spread – and who has coronavirus or another disease with similar symptoms,” Tedros said.

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Many countries in Africa are still reeling from the 2014-16 outbreak of Ebola, which killed 11,325 people and infected 28,600. The deadly virus is yet to be contained, with new cases reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week.

There are concerns that Africa’s close links with China put it at high risk for the spread of the new coronavirus. Africa has become home to millions of Chinese since Beijing started looking to the continent for raw materials for its industries and markets for its products, and China has been Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009, after it overtook the United States.

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China is also a major trading partner of Egypt, with two-way trade standing at US$13.8 billion in 2018, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Beijing is pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in the country, including building a business district in its new administrative capital, 50km east of Cairo. Chinese firms are also investing billions of dollars in the Egyptian Suez Canal Economic Zone, a project under Beijing’s sprawling trade and infrastructure scheme the Belt and Road Initiative.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Foreigner in Egypt becomes first confirmed case in Africa