For weeks, health officials have warned that a worst-case scenario for the outbreak involves the disease spreading in Africa’s fragile health systems. But beyond a single case in Egypt, authorities haven’t yet identified others — a trend many suspect is due to under-testing on the continent.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization announced a turning point in the Covid-19 epidemic: In the days prior, the number of new cases reported in the rest of the world had exceeded the number reported from China, where the virus seems to have originated. This includes large outbreaks in Iran, Italy, and South Korea.
“This virus has pandemic potential,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, Thursday. (A pandemic means a new virus is spreading in multiple regions of the world — but it doesn’t say anything of a disease’s severity.) It was the first time the agency’s director general flicked at what other public health experts had been saying in recent weeks with increasing urgency: that we appear to be on the precipice of a pandemic, if we’re not already in one.
The Lagos case is linked to Italy’s outbreak
The first reported case in Africa’s largest city — along with the discovery of cases in a growing list of more than 40 countries around the world — suggests there will be more to come.
The patient is an Italian citizen who had been working in Nigeria — one of the many cases that have been detected, as far and wide as Brazil and Spain, from Italy’s outbreak. On February 25, the person returned from Milan to Lagos, according to Nigeria’s Health Minister Osagie Ehanire. The individual tested positive for the virus on February 25.
“I wish to assure all Nigerians that we have been beefing up our preparedness capabilities since the first confirmation of cases in China, and we will use all the resources made available by the government to respond to this case,” Ehanire said in a statement. The health agency was already working on tracing the individual’s contacts, he added.
“We have to recognize how well Nigeria did in handling Ebola,” said Devi Sridhar, chair in Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh. During the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, the arrival of cases in Lagos stoked fears that the virus could spread throughout the megacity and rapidly beyond. But Nigeria’s public health officials managed to swiftly get the outbreak under control.
“They have world-class public health experts so ideally they can track all the contacts for this individual and contain it quickly,” she added.
Why an outbreak in Lagos is so worrying
A single case imported to Lagos doesn’t mean the virus is spreading there. But health experts note that transmission is a concern in Lagos, a densely packed megacity of 21 million in a lower-middle-income country. And unlike Ebola — which spread only through direct contact with a person’s bodily fluids — Covid-19 is a respiratory virus and much more contagious. A mere cough or sneeze appears to be enough to pass it along.
“Covid-19 isn’t Ebola. Containment [is] difficult if not impossible,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Twitter. “The terrifying possibility is of dozens of cities with Wuhan-like outbreaks,” he added, referring to the city in China where the virus is believed to have emerged.
Some countries have belatedly started looking for Covid-19 and discovered large outbreaks, suggesting the disease has been spreading widely, undetected. Over the last week-and-a-half, Iran went from zero cases of Covid-19 to 270 on Friday; the country has the second highest number of deaths (26) outside of China.
Like Italy, cases with links to Iran have been discovered around the world — from Canada to Lebanon. In a yet-to-be-published study, researchers estimated there are likely at least 18,000 cases within Iran’s borders. They predict that we can expect outbreaks with links back to Iran in Turkey, UAE, Iraq, Qatar, and Georgia, among other countries.
Until early February, only two countries in Africa had the lab capacity to screen for this disease — Senegal and South Africa. Though other countries are now scaling up, this outbreak has been going on since late last year, and it’s only now that a case is being found in Subsaharan Africa, even though it’s thought to be at particular risk given its links to China. As Frieden said of Nigeria’s case on Twitter, “[A] pandemic is coming.”