Coronavirus cases in Africa could shoot up from thousands now to 10 million within three to six months according to very provisional modelling, a regional World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday.
But Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for WHO Africa, said that was a tentative projection which could change and noted worst-case predictions for the Ebola outbreak had not come true because people changed behaviour in time.
"This is still to be fine-tuned," he told a media teleconference. "It's difficult to make a long-term estimation because the context changes too much and also public health measures when they are fully implemented, they can actually have an impact."
The world's poorest continent has seen more than 17,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease and about 900 deaths so far - relatively little compared to some other regions.
But there are fears that could balloon and overwhelm shaky health services.
"We are concerned that the virus continues to spread geographically, within countries," said Matshidiso Moeti, director for WHO's Africa region, which comprises 46 sub-Saharan nations and Algeria.
"The numbers continue to increase every day."
Infections in South Africa, which has the highest number of cases, have slowed after it began a strict lockdown, but other nations - like Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Algeria - have seen higher than average fatalities.
The WHO is working with authorities there to improve patient care and reduce fatalities, Moeti said.
TRUMP MOVE A BLOW TO AFRICA
She warned that President Donald Trump's withdrawal of U.S. funding for the WHO could harm both the fight against against other killers like polio, HIV and malaria.
"The impact, potentially, of this decision will be quite significant on areas such as polio eradication," said Moeti, just when Africa was close to being declared polio-free.
Trump accused the Geneva-based WHO on Tuesday of promoting Chinese "disinformation" about the new coronavirus, saying this had probably worsened the outbreak and that he would stop its funding even as he defended his own handling of the crisis.
More than 2 million people have been infected globally, with the largest number in the United States.
Washington is the biggest donor to the WHO, which tackles specific diseases and also strengthens national health systems. The United States contributed more than $400 million to the WHO in 2019, roughly 15% of its budget.
"We are very much hoping (suspension of funding) will be re-thought because the U.S. government is an important partner not only in financial terms but also it is an important strategic partner," Moeti said.
She also told the media teleconference that the organisation requires $300 million to help African governments respond to the pandemic.