Africa Renewal: How prepared is Africa to respond to COVID-19?
Dr. Nkengasong: We were fortunate that COVID-19 didn't start in Africa. We had time to observe what happened in China in December 2019 and January 2020, and rapidly prepare countries to respond in key areas. One of those is diagnostics. By the second week of February, just Senegal and South Africa could diagnose COVID-19. So, in Senegal, we quickly brought together representatives of laboratories from 16 African countries, trained them and gave them diagnostic equipment. After that we conducted competency-based training in South Africa, where we also provided diagnostic equipment. Then we came back again to Senegal and trained another group. So far, we have trained representatives of laboratories from 48 countries. The cases being detected now are because of that massive effort.
What are the other areas?
The second area we focused on was infection prevention and control. We recognized that COVID-19 could overwhelm our healthcare facilities and that nurses and doctors could be affected. We cannot afford to have 3,000 doctors or healthcare workers infected, as was the case in China. So, we immediately brought representatives of 35 countries together in Nigeria and trained them on infection prevention and control. In Kenya we brought together representatives of more than 30 countries for training in enhanced airport, airline and port-of-entry screening.
Then we went to Tunisia and trained countries on communicating risk to the general public.
How is the African Union providing support?
We are using all expertise — from member states, Africa CDC and WHO — to respond to COVID-19.
At the political level, Africa CDC and the African Union Commission, under the leadership of chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat convened a meeting of all health ministers on 22 February where we agreed on the need to have a coordinated continental strategy that hinges on cooperation, collaboration, coordination and communication.
The second outcome of that meeting was the establishment of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus Preparedness and Response. The infection prevention and control part of that task force is co-led by Nigeria and Africa CDC. The laboratory part of it is co-led by Senegal, Africa CDC and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
What are the key challenges so far?
There are serious challenges in supplies. In New York, you hear the governor talk about shortages of respirators and other supplies. In Africa, we don't manufacture these items; we import them. But now that the world is consuming a lot of what is produced, it is becoming difficult for us to obtain such items that will allow us to better prepare and respond.
What do you plan to do about this?
We have been working very hard with the office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, and the Jack Ma Foundation, who jointly launched an initiative to support African countries with a huge shipment of diagnostic equipment. I'll call it the “marathon mission” because we have seven [Africa CDC] personnel at the airport coordinating with Ethiopian Airlines, WHO and the Ethiopian government to distribute throughout Africa about one million testing kits, six million masks, and 60,000 protective suits.
The current stock will buy us time for about two to three weeks. But in the next couple of weeks we need, as Africans, to have our own stock. Africa CDC and the AU will be heading out all over the world to stockpile massively so that we can support member states in the fight against COVID-19.