Bill Gates warned that coronavirus in Africa could overwhelm health services and trigger a pandemic that could cause 10 million deaths.
Microsoft’s founder and global health pioneer was speaking at the AAAS meeting in Seattle just hours before the first case was confirmed in Cairo, Egypt.
Now there is concern that the disease may spread to sub-Saharan Africa where it could trigger an uncontrollable outbreak, with health services unable to monitor or control the virus.
Gates said, “I wanted to talk about a special topic, which is this recent coronavirus epidemic.
“This is a great challenge, we have always known that the potential of a pandemic caused naturally or intentionally is one of the few things that could disrupt health systems and economies and cause over 10 million excess deaths.
“This could be particularly if it spreads in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and somewhere in Asia, it could be very dramatic.
“We are doing constant science to provide the tools to make the diagnosis to provide vaccines, to provide therapies and hopefully contain this epidemic, but it’s potentially a bad situation.”
Gates warned that there was a huge under-investment in antivirals and called on China to “step up” and provide better drugs.
He said that although the world has become accustomed to handling known diseases, such as Ebola, not enough thought has been given to how to cope with emerging threats.
Gates said that coronovirus is more worrying than Ebola because, although the mortality rate is not that high, it spreads much faster.
“Ebola is terrible, but it’s not like lightning influence,” he said.
“This coronavirus has many similarities with a very bad flu, in terms of its mortality rate, much more like the flu outbreak of 1957.
“But this is much worse than a typical seasonal flu and obviously we don’t have immunity.
“Will this enter Africa or not and, if so, will those health systems be overwhelmed?
“If you look at Ebola, most of the excess deaths were caused by the closure of the health service. It’s not just the direct effect, it’s also the panic, the overhead and the things that affect health workers, because you already have very limited capacity.
“This disease, if it is in Africa, is more dramatic than if it were in China, although I am not trying to minimize what is happening in China in any way.”
British experts said it is not surprising that the disease reached Egypt because Cairo was a world hub and had many visitors from China.
They said it is encouraging that African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) are working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and African Member States to improve diagnosis and surveillance.
The patient was quickly isolated and the people who had been in contact were all negative.
However, other experts have warned that limited health services in Africa may mean that it is already unnoticed in other countries.
Dr Andrew Freedman, reader of infectious diseases and honorary medical consultant, Cardiff University’s Faculty of Medicine, said: “It was always inevitable that the virus spread to the African continent.
“In fact, there may already be more cases in other African countries that have circumvented the detection.
“The concern is that it may prove impossible to curb the spread of COVID-19 in developing countries with less robust health systems; this, in turn, could lead to a wider global spread. “
Dr. Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, added: “There have been concerns about the impact of the coronavirus epidemic when it arrives in Africa. Therefore, it is reassuring that there was a swift track of the contacts and that all the contacts were negative.
“This gives the certainty that this could be an isolated case with minimal transmission.”
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