There is only one confirmed case in Africa and none in the Americas, but test results have been delayed because countries are sending samples to other countries for testing, WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing in Geneva on Feb. 18. “Now they can do it themselves, within 24 to 48 hours,” he said.
By the end of the week, Tedros said, 40 countries in Africa and 29 in the Americas will have the ability to test for cases of COVID-19, which emerged from China in December 2019. The WHO and other groups, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have sent test kits to countries that lack the capacity to develop their own.
Some countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, are using systems set up previously to test for the new virus. Congo saw numerous Ebola cases in recent years.
“This is a great example of how investing in health systems can pay dividends for health security,” Tedros said.
At the same time, the WHO is working with partners in some of the “most fragile contexts,” such as Syria and the Central African Republic, to prepare countries for the arrival of COVID-19. “We still have a chance of preventing a broader global crisis,” Tedros said.
Cases cropping up in countries outside China, such as the dozens that have been confirmed in Singapore and Japan, show the importance of nations being ready for the arrival of the virus, the doctor added. Countries should get ready to treat patients with dignity and compassion, protect health workers, and prevent onward transmission.
Tedros praised Singapore for their focused response to the outbreak there, saying authorities are trying to locate every case of the virus by following up with contacts of patients who tested positive as well as trying to stop transmission.
“Singapore is leaving no stone unturned, testing every case of influenza-like illness and pneumonia. So far they have not found evidence of COVID-19 community transmission,” he said.
WHO officials have generally remained optimistic amid growing fears worldwide of a wider spread of the virus, which has spread to over two dozen countries. The vast majority of cases are in China, where authorities have quarantined large swaths of the population and implemented travel restrictions on other parts.
The WHO sent an international team of experts to China, which arrived over the weekend. The team might travel to Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, but for now, are going to Guangdong and Xinjiang, the provinces that are the most accessible to the agency, officials said. A trip to Wuhan remains on the table as well as other options. A WHO team has been in Wuhan since January, though the new team of experts could also help with the response to the virus there, Tedros said.
Efforts right now around the world need to strike a balance between public health interventions and racing to find a treatment for the virus, which has no vaccine or therapies, Tedros told reporters. It could take up to 18 months to develop a vaccine, making measures that can be taken now important.