Forty countries in Africa will be able to test for the deadly new coronavirus by the end of the week, the WHO said, after Egypt confirmed the first case on the continent last week.
The World Health Organisation said many of those nations had been sending samples elsewhere for testing and waiting several days for results.
"Now they can do it themselves, within 24 to 48 hours," WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a media briefing on Tuesday.
Until about two weeks ago, there were only two laboratories in the continent of 54 countries - in Senegal and South Africa - with the reagents needed to test for the virus. That meant dozens of nations that had quarantined suspected patients were sending samples to South Africa or Senegal to be tested.
The WHO earlier this week sent reagent kits for coronavirus diagnosis to more than 20 countries in Africa to step up diagnosis of the virus, which causes a disease now known as Covid-19. The global health body said more countries in Africa were expected to receive testing kits this week.
In addition, the WHO last week sent testing kits to Cameroon, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.
Tedros said some countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, were using systems developed to test for the deadly Ebola virus to now test for the coronavirus.
"This is a great example of how investing in health systems can pay dividends for health security," Tedros said.
Several countries, including Ethiopia and South Sudan, were prioritising surveillance and monitoring at ports of entry, he said. "We're also working with partners in some of the most fragile contexts, from Syria to the Central African Republic, to prepare countries for the arrival of the virus," he said.
The WHO and Egyptian health officials on Friday confirmed that a 33-year-old foreigner had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Egypt's health ministry said the patient had tested positive for the virus without any symptoms, raising concern that there could be undetected cases on the continent, as countries scramble to equip labs to test for the disease.
The asymptomatic patient in Egypt was identified through contact screening of an index case who travelled to Cairo on a business trip from Jan 21 to Feb 4 and tested positive for the virus on February 11 in China, the WHO regional office said.
The new virus strain has killed more than 2,000 people and infected over 74,000 since the outbreak began in central China in December. It has spread to more than 20 countries.
Screening measures have been stepped up across Africa, including quarantining all passengers arriving from Chinese cities, amid fears that poorer countries with weaker health systems may struggle to cope if the virus spreads on the continent. More than a dozen countries still do not have the capacity to test for the pneumonia-like illness.
There are concerns that Africa's close links with China put it at high risk for the spread of the new virus. Africa has become home to millions of Chinese since Beijing started looking to the continent for raw materials for its industries and markets for its products.
China has been Africa's largest trading partner since 2009, after it overtook the United States, with two-way trade standing at US$108 billion (S$151 billion) last year, according to China's commerce ministry.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said it was working closely with the WHO and other partners to ensure that Egypt had the diagnostic tools it needed, and that the right actions were taken to contain the spread of the virus.
"We anticipated that the Covid-19 outbreak would inevitably impact Africa. That is why the Africa CDC has been working actively with African Union member states and partners in the past four weeks and investing in preparedness and response to the disease," he said.
"[Last week in Dakar, Senegal] we conducted training and supplied test kits to 16 African laboratories, including from Egypt. Egypt also received additional test kits from the WHO," Nkengasong said.
The Africa CDC would train 40 health workers from nine countries, including Egypt, in Nairobi this week, he said, on "enhancing detection and investigation of Covid-19 at points of entry".
On Monday, Ethiopia, home to one of the continent's busiest airports, said it had received equipment and reagents for virus detection and control. "We are working hard day and night with the government to improve the critical measures needed to ensure that the country is ready to effectively respond to an outbreak of Covid-19," said Boureima Hama Sambo, the WHO representative in Ethiopia.
National flag carrier Ethiopian Airlines has continued flying to Chinese cities despite pressure for it to suspend services to the country. Many countries on the continent have restricted travel to and from mainland China, while six out of eight African airlines with Chinese routes have halted flights until the virus is contained, including EgyptAir.
Egypt has suspended all flights to and from the mainland until the end of the month and has evacuated more than 300 Egyptians from Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic.
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.