JOHANNESBURG — Africa’s confirmed coronavirus cases have surpassed 1 million, but global health specialists say the true toll is likely several times higher, reflecting the gaping lack of testing for the continent’s 1.3 billion people.
While specialists say infection tolls in richer nations can be significant undercounts, large numbers of undetected cases are a greater danger for Africa, with many of the world’s weakest health systems.
The World Health Organization calls the milestone a “pivotal point” for Africa as infections in several countries are surging. The virus has spread beyond major cities “into distant hinterlands” where few health resources exist and reaching care could take days.
Africa’s most developed country, South Africa, has strained to cope as hospital beds fill up and confirmed cases are more than a half-million, ranking fifth in the world. The country has Africa’s most extensive testing and data collection, and yet a South African Medical Research Council report last week showed many COVID-19 deaths were going uncounted.
It’s all a warning for Africa’s other 53 countries of what might lie ahead. While dire early predictions for the pandemic have not played out, “we think it’s going to be here at a slow burn,” the WHO’s Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, said Thursday.
Just two African countries at the start of the pandemic were equipped to test for the virus. Now virtually all have basic capacity, but supplies are often scarce. Some countries have a single testing machine. Some conduct fewer than 500 tests per million people, while richer countries overseas conduct hundreds of thousands. Samples can take days to reach labs. Even in South Africa, turnaround times for many test results have been a week or longer.
Germany orders tests for travelers from ‘risk areas’
BERLIN — Germany will require people arriving from countries deemed high risk, such as the United States, to take coronavirus tests starting this weekend, the health minister said Thursday, as the country recorded its highest daily tally of new infections in three months.
German officials have voiced alarm over a steady upward creep in the number of new infections over recent weeks. The national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said 1,045 cases were recorded on Wednesday — the first time since May 7 that it has counted more than 1,000 new cases in a day.
Daily figures can be volatile or distorted by delays in reporting, and the number is still far short of the peak of more than 6,000 reached in early April.
“What we are seeing is a lot of small outbreaks,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters. “People are getting infected at family parties, at their place of work, or at community facilities.”
On top of that, school holidays — the dates of which are staggered across Germany’s 16 states — are ending in some regions, increasing concerns that vacationers could bring home the virus.
People entering from countries deemed high-risk — currently most of the world outside the Europe Union, as well as Luxembourg, parts of northern Spain, and the Belgian city of Antwerp — are already required to quarantine for 14 days unless they can present a negative test result no more than two days old.
Spahn said that, starting Saturday, people arriving from those countries will also be required to take a test unless they bring a new test result.
Germany’s COVID-19 response has been widely regarded as relatively successful. The Robert Koch Institute has recorded 9,175 deaths from more than 213,000 confirmed cases -- a lower death rate than in many comparable countries.
UK says 50m face masks it bought might not be safe
LONDON — The British government says it won’t be using 50 million face masks it bought during a scramble to secure protective equipment for medics at the height of the coronavirus outbreak because of safety concerns.
The masks were part of a 252 million pound ($332 million) contract the government signed with investment firm Ayanda Capital in April. Papers filed in a court case reveal that the masks will not be distributed because they have ear loops rather than head loops and may not fit tightly enough.
The government says another 150 million masks supplied by Ayanda are unaffected but are still being tested.
The papers are part of a lawsuit against the Conservative government by campaigning groups the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor.
Opposition parties are calling for an urgent investigation into the way personal protective equipment was acquired.
Philippines passes Indonesia as worst outbreak in region
MANILA — The Philippines reported 3,561 new coronavirus cases Thursday and overtook Indonesia with the most infections in Southeast Asia, as Manila plunged into a recession.
The latest jump brings confirmed cases to 119,460, including 2,150 deaths. Indonesia reported a total of 118,753 confirmed infections as of Thursday, with 5,521 deaths.
The economy slumped by 16.5 percent in the second quarter in the worst contraction on record in decades.
The stagnant economy began to rebound slightly after President Rodrigo Duterte eased a three-month lockdown in June. But he put the capital and outlying provinces of more than 25 million people back under a two-week moderate lockdown Tuesday, after medical groups warned the health care system was being overwhelmed and could collapse.
N. Korea’s escalating virus response heightens fears
SEOUL — North Korea is quarantining thousands of people and shipping food and other aid to a southern city locked down over coronavirus worries, officials said, as the country’s response to a suspected case reinforces doubt about its longstanding claim to be virus-free.
But amid the outside skepticism and a stream of North Korean propaganda glorifying its virus efforts, an exchange between the country and the United Nations is providing new clarity — and actual numbers — about what might be happening in North Korea, which has closed its borders and cut travel — never a free-flowing stream — by outsider monitors and journalists.
In late July, North Korea said it had imposed its “maximum emergency system” to guard against the virus spreading after finding a person with COVID-19 symptoms in Kaesong city.
In a report to the World Health Organization, North Korea said it has quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Keasong case and 3,571 secondary contacts in state-run facilities for a period of 40 days, according to Dr. Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea.
Closed for vacation: France faces new testing troubles
PARIS — With virus cases rising anew, France is struggling to administer enough tests to keep up with demand. One reason: Many testing labs are closed so that their staff can take summer vacation, just as signs of a second wave are building.
Doctors and specialists say the vacation crunch is just part of a larger web of failures in France’s testing strategy — a strategy that even the government’s own virus advisory panel this week called disorganized and “insufficient.”
“First, there is a lack of workers to do the testing,” emergency services doctor Christophe Prudhomme told the Associated Press at his hospital in the Paris suburb of Bobigny.
“And then it’s a matter of organization,” he said, urging regional health agencies “to organize testing so that it’s not the citizen who has to take his phone and try to call seven or eight labs in order to get an appointment that will take place only next week.”
Testing troubles have plagued the United States and other countries, too. But France’s August ritual of fleeing cities for weeks of holiday rest on seashores, mountainsides, or grandma’s country house is an added tangle.