BEIJING—In the unfolding Ebola crisis, much attention has focused on the relief efforts of Western countries and the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders. Out of the limelight, China is mounting one of its largest aid operations ever, driven in part by increasing political and business interests in Africa.
Already about 200 medical workers and advisers from China are now stationed in the three West African countries fighting Ebola outbreaks: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. George Gao, deputy director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), runs a mobile testing lab in the capital of Sierra Leone. Reached by phone there in Freetown, Gao says his team performs 40 to 60 blood tests a day. In addition to diagnosing the disease in patients, it’s crucial to test corpses; if a patient has died from Ebola, it’s imperative to refrain from traditional burial practices in West Africa such as washing or touching the deceased or giving a “final kiss,” Gao says.
A veteran of successful efforts in recent months to contain the H7N5 and H7N9 strains of avian influenza in China, Gao and his team of about 30 people from China CDC arrived in Freetown in mid-September and will stay until mid-November, when Chinese colleagues rotate in. Also in Sierra Leone, about 30 medical personnel from Beijing’s 302 Military Hospital, which took the lead during the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, is operating a holding center to keep suspected Ebola patients under quarantine. In the next few weeks, another 480 medical personnel from China’s People’s Liberation Army, including staff involved in fighting SARS, will arrive in Liberia to build and staff a 100-bed treatment center. China is also set to deliver to the region 60 ambulances, 100 motorcycles, and other supplies, including pickup trucks and incinerators, within the month.
“Ebola has become the common enemy,” Lin Songtian, director-general of the Department of African Affairs, told reporters in Beijing on 31 October. “Our aid to Africa in fighting Ebola has been the most sustained campaign and among the largest financial contribution [for international relief efforts] in our history.” China’s financial assistance for fighting Ebola to date—including grants to the World Health Organization, the U.N. Ebola Response Multi-Partner Trust Fund, and other organizations—totals 750 million RMB ($123 million), according to Lin.
When asked by a reporter to explain China’s generosity, Lin pointed out that there are now 25,000 Chinese businesses registered in Africa and that China is the continent’s largest trading partner. Moreover, he added, Beijing sees African capitals as political allies. “Over the past half-century, China and Africa have come to work more closely together. Also, we will not forget that our African brothers restored China’s seat on the U.N. Security Council,” a reference to the 1971 vote tally that gave Taiwan’s former position on the council to the People’s Republic.
International observers say that Gao and his disease-fighting comrades are in a good position to share China’s hard-won knowledge. “They have come a long way from 10 years ago, when they missed the initial outbreak of SARS, to last year, when Chinese health authorities quickly shared information with the international community about the avian influenza outbreak—their efforts were quite effective,” says Roberto Bruzzone, co-director of HKU-Pasteur Research Pole in Hong Kong. “Now, China is even taking a leadership role” in relief efforts. “I think it’s a desire to assume greater global responsibility that’s bringing China at this moment to Africa; it’s also a demonstration of China’s medical and scientific growth.”
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have taken steps to prevent an outbreak back home. Passengers arriving in China from Ebola-affected countries in western Africa are screened for fevers and monitored (though not quarantined) for 21 days, the maximum time from infection to onset of symptoms of Ebola virus disease. Over the last 3 months, health authorities have screened 26,235 arrivals from the three affected countries, identifying 88 people with fevers. But they have not confirmed a single case of Ebola, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. “The risk cannot be ignored,” says Benjamin Cowling, an associate professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. “It is possible that persons infected with Ebola could arrive in China in the coming weeks and months, and this includes business travelers and tourists as well as returning aid and medical workers.”
The greatest risk of infection is to the medical doctors and personnel in West Africa, Bruzzone notes: “That risk increases proportionally with the number of weeks that they will stay there, and how many patients they have seen.” Gao insists he isn’t too worried about himself or his team. “This is a very self-contained virus; it’s not transmitted by aerosols.” If proper protection measures are followed rigorously, he says, it’s “not that dangerous.”
*The Ebola Files: Given the current Ebola outbreak, unprecedented in terms of number of people killed and rapid geographic spread, Science and Science Translational Medicine have made a collection of research and news articles on the viral disease freely available to researchers and the general public.