Bill Gates has warned that coronavirus in Africa could overwhelm health services and trigger a pandemic which could cause 10 million deaths.
The Microsoft founder and global health pioneer was speaking at the AAAS meeting in Seattle just hours before the first case was confirmed in Cairo, Egypt.
There are now fears that the disease could spread to sub-Saharan Africa where it could spark an uncontrollable outbreak, with health services unable to monitor or control the virus.
Mr Gates said: “I wanted to talk about a special topic, which is this recent coronavirus epidemic.
“This is a huge challenge, we’ve always known the potential for a naturally caused, or intentionally caused, pandemic is one if the few things that could disrupt health systems and economies and cause more than 10 million excess deaths.
“This could be particularly if it spreads in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and some Asia, it could be very very dramatic.
“We’re doing the constant science to provide the tools to do the diagnosis to provide vaccines, to provide therapeutics and hopefully contain this epidemic, but it’s potentially a very bad situation.”
Mr Gates warned that there had been a huge underinvestment in anti-virals and called on China to ‘step-up’ and provide better drugs.
He said that although the world had become practiced a dealing with known diseases, such as Ebola, there was not enough thought about how to cope with emerging threats.
Mr Gates said coronovirus was more worrying than Ebola because although the death rate is not as high, it spreads far faster.
“Ebola is terrible, but it’s not like a lightning flu,” he said.
“This coronavirus has a lot of similarities to a very bad flu, in terms of the death rate, so far more like the 1957 flu outbreak.
”But this is way worse than a typical seasonal flu and of course we have no immunity.
“Will this get into Africa or not and if so, will those health systems be overwhelmed?
“If you look at Ebola, most of the excess deaths were caused because the health service shut down. It’s not just the direct effect, it’s also the panic, the overload, and the things that effect health workers, because you’re already at very limited capacity.
“This disease, if it’s in Africa it’s more dramatic than if it’s in China, even though I’m not trying to minimise what’s going on in China in any way.”
British experts said it was unsurprising that the disease had reached Egypt because Cairo was a world hub and had a lot of visitors from China.
They said it was encouraging that the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) were working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and African Member States to improve diagnosis and surveillance.
The patient was isolated quickly and people who had been in contact all tested negative.
However other experts warned that the limited health services in Africa may mean it is already in other countries undetected.
Dr Andrew Freedman, Reader in Infectious Diseases and Honorary Consultant Physician, Cardiff University School of Medicine, said: “It was always inevitable that the virus would spread to the African continent.
“Indeed there may well already be more cases in other African countries that have evaded detection.
“The concern is that it may prove impossible to contain the spread of COVID-19 in developing countries with less robust health systems; this, in turn, could lead to wider global spread.”
Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, added: “There have been concerns about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak when it arrives in Africa. Therefore, it is reassuring that there has been some rapid contact tracing and all contacts have tested negative.
“This gives confidence that this might be an isolated case with minimal transmission.”