The World Health Organization warned on Saturday that African health systems were ill-equipped to respond to the deadly coronavirus outbreak should cases start to proliferate on the continent.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on African Union member states "to come together to be more aggressive in attacking" the virus, known as COVID-19.
"Our biggest concern continues to be the potential for COVID-19 to spread in countries with weaker health systems," Tedros, speaking by video link from Geneva, said during a meeting of 36 African health ministers at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
The outbreak which began in December has already killed more than 2 200 people and infected more than 75 500 in China.
More than 1 150 people have also been infected outside China, although Egypt is the only African country to have recorded a confirmed case.
There have been more than 200 suspected cases in the WHO's AFRO region, which includes most African countries, though nearly all have been confirmed negative, regional director Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti said Saturday.
But if COVID-19 starts to spread on the continent, African health systems will struggle to treat patients suffering from symptoms such as respiratory failure, septic shock and multi-organ failure, Tedros said.
"These patients require intensive care using equipment suh as respiratory support machines that are, as you know, in short supply in many African countries and that's a cause for concern," he said.
Several African airlines including Kenya Airways have suspended flights to China, with the continent's biggest carrier Ethiopian Airlines keeping its China routes open.
Liu Yuxi, China's ambassador to the AU, on Saturday urged officials to ease travel restrictions
"I hope that everyone will stay calm and objective. Excessive panic could actually increase the disease," he said.
AU Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told officials to take "drastic preventive and control measures".
"Africa, is particularly at risk, given its relatively fragile health systems," he said.
The Looming threat
African countries have been scrambling to develop the capacity to test for COVID-19.
In three weeks, the number of African countries capable of conducting their own tests has jumped from two to 26, Moeti said.
John Nkengasong, director of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told AFP that number would soon be well over 40.
Yet he noted that if COVID-19 cases started emerging in large numbers African countries could encounter shortages of testing kits and personal protective equipment like face masks.
"If truly we have a virus introduced on the continent and it becomes a larger issue, the ability to procure diagnostics in a timely fashion to support that testing will still be limited," he said.
"We are facing a looming threat, a serious threat for the continent," he added.
An exhibition hall has been converted into a hospital in Wuhan, February 5, 2020. (Getty Images)
Tedros said in his remarks that 30 000 sets of personal protective equipment had been shipped "to several countries in Africa", and that 60 000 more tests would be sent to 19 countries "in the coming weeks".
He also announced that Nkengasong and Samba Sow, director general of the Centre for Vaccine Development in Mali, had been appointed special envoys for the African response to COVID-19.
Tedros said their mandate was "to provide strategic advice and high-level political advocacy and engagement in Africa."