Arek Rataj

Antwerp’s Institute of Tropical Medicine prepares for potential Corona virus outbreak in Africa

The number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) continues to rise. More than 20,630 people are currently infected with the virus in China. The coronavirus has spread to 23 countries in Asia, North America, the Middle East and Europe, where 159 people are infected. Until now, one infection has been detected in Belgium. The Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp is closely monitoring the situation and continues to inform Belgian travellers via its travel medicine website, Wanda. Although there are no confirmed cases in Africa so far, ITM researchers are preparing to provide support to African countries with weak health systems.

Scientists and health authorities are increasingly concerned about the novel coronavirus that has infected thousands of people and can be deadly. The virus has killed 426 people, including one case outside China. Coronaviruses are a large family including Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), genetic analyses suggests that the virus originated from a virus related to SARS. 2019-nCoV causes respiratory problems and first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

It remains difficult to predict how broadly this virus will spread, says the ITM, or if it can be controlled and eliminated like SARS. The number of cases is higher than with SARS and the virus is also more widespread. Despite the fact that the new coronavirus has been able to spread from China to other parts of the world, there remain few instances of person-to-person transmission outside China. “This is largely due to the implementation of rapid control measures with active contact investigation and infection control. However, as the number of infections in China increases, so does the risk of it spreading even further. Of particular concern are countries where there is limited capacity to conduct surveillance diagnosis with follow up of contacts. This means that, once introduced, the virus could spread undetected in these countries," warns ITM director, Dr Marc-Alain Widdowson. 

ITM is monitoring the situation closely and is in touch with the African CDC and its partner countries in Africa. The Institute says it’s available to support a public health response and is considering studies to better understand the possible spread of the virus in these countries. Researching emerging infections and outbreaks is a priority for ITM. ITM’s dedicated Outbreak Research Team has a mission to strengthen the evidence-base for improved outbreak preparedness, response, recovery and resilience through interdisciplinary applied research.

Over the past weeks, ITM’s travel clinic has been flooded with questions from concerned travellers. ITM doctors inform travellers and physicians about the situation regarding the new coronavirus via the travel medicine website, Wanda. Wanda also refers to the extensive FAQ on the website of the federal Ministry of Health. Together with the Antwerp University Hospital and in consultation with the risk management group of the federal Ministry of Health, ITM is preparing to implement the necessary measures in case a patient with respiratory symptoms after returning from China appears in ITM’s travel clinic or in the emergency ward of the Antwerp University Hospital.

Belga