In Germany there have been previously undiscovered cases of coronavirus infections. "It would be conceivable that smaller, limited clusters exist under the radar of the health system, which do not stand out," said epidemiologist Gérard Krause, head of department at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Brauschweig, to SPIEGEL. How does he figure it out?
Two white-clad figures, their faces hidden behind a breathing mask, await the passengers of the evening flight from Nairobi. One of the two epidemics at Brazzaville Airport, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, holds out a pistol-like thermometer to every traveler. His colleague notes the measured temperature with a worried look. Then she presses a small amount of disinfectant gel onto the palm of each passenger.
The employees of the WHO Africa headquarters in Brazzaville fear that the novel corona virus from China can arrive here at any moment. Perhaps it has long been there and is spreading unnoticed, as many infected people show only mild symptoms – in a hospital, at a market or among family members.
"Africa has such close contacts with China – I can hardly imagine that there is not yet an infected person on this continent," says Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which works closely with local disease doctors. The fact that so far no sick people have been identified "really worries me".
Many countries in Africa are considered by experts to be ill-prepared for the Sars-CoV-2 virus, the causative agent of the respiratory disease christened WHO by Covid-19 this week, which has already caused more than 1,350 deaths in China. Up until Thursday, only 17 laboratories in the 47 countries of the WHO region of Africa were testing – far too few to check all suspected cases.
"Without diagnostic tests," emphasizes Piot, "we don't know how far the virus has spread and the infections can remain invisible for a while. Then you have no chance of intervening early."
In any case, there is currently growing evidence that the confirmed cases sent to the WHO are understated in many places around the world. Even in Germany, in addition to the 16 cases identified, there could be other infected people, of whom nobody knows anything.
"It would be conceivable that smaller, limited clusters also exist in Germany under the radar of the health system, which do not attract further attention," says epidemiologist Gérard Krause, head of department at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig.