South Africa: Officials on 'High Alert' for Coronavirus

MERS Coronavirus particles on camel epithelial cells.

South Africa’s health ministry says it is on “high alert” for possible coronavirus patients at the continent’s busiest airport.

No cases have been reported in the country as of Thursday, of the swift global outbreak that has killed at least 17 people and infected more than 600, most of them in China.

But South African Health Ministry spokesperson Dr. Lwazi Manzi told local media that officials are ready to react, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said it is conducting active surveillance to identify any potential imported cases.

Some 21 million travelers came through Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport in 2018. It is the only airport in South Africa with direct flights to and from China, where the pneumonia-like virus originated.

"We are on high alert for any kind of situation that could pose a threat to an outbreak in this country. We wish to assure the public that so far there have been no cases reported of coronavirus in this country," she told local radio in a statement.

She did not elaborate on the precautions, but the airport has implemented temperature testing and health screening at the airport during previous outbreaks of Ebola, Zika and other viruses.

In a statement, the NICD assured South Africans that there is no immediate threat.

"There is no evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission,” the statement read. “There are no direct flights from [the city of] Wuhan to South Africa.  However, it is possible that individuals could travel to South Africa from Wuhan via other countries.”

And, the institute noted, most cases were linked to a seafood, poultry and live wildlife market in Jianghan District, Hubei Province.

"This suggests that the novel coronavirus has a possible zoonotic origin,” said the NICD, meaning a virus is transmitted from animals to humans.

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