The commander of U.S. forces in Africa said Thursday that a suspected coronavirus case has turned up in the tiny East African state of Djibouti, where the U.S. and China maintain bases about seven miles apart.
Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, said he is not aware of any confirmed cases of coronavirus spreading from China to the continent, but "there are some suspected cases."
"The first reported suspected case I've heard of is in Djibouti, which you would imagine [has a] significant Chinese presence" with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)'s first overseas base, he said. The Doraleh port facility is also operated by the Chinese.
During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Townsend did not elaborate on whether the suspected case was at China's naval base or at the port facility.
He also was not questioned on whether precautions are being taken at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the primary base of operations for AFRICOM on the Horn of Africa.
The potential for the spread of coronavirus to Africa is a grave concern, Townsend said.
Suspected cases have also been reported in Ivory Coast and Kenya, and "the capacity of African nations to deal with this problem varies widely," he said.
At the same hearing, Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, said he "would be extremely concerned" about the potential spread of coronavirus to Latin America.
More than five million refugees have fled the dictatorship in Venezuela to neighboring countries and have already strained local health and social services beyond their capacities, Faller said.
Both Faller and Townsend were responding to questions from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who said the coronavirus is on the verge of becoming a global pandemic. He said that China has been "lying" about the extent of the threat "and they've been lying about it from the beginning."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said a directive would be going out to troops worldwide "advising forces about precautions they should take -- how to recognize the signs and symptoms" of coronavirus. "We want to make sure we stay in front of this."
At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, Esper also said that the Defense Department is working with interagency partners "as we monitor the situation and protect our service members and their families, which is my highest priority."
He noted that the DoD is providing housing support for about 210 U.S. citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, who arrived on a charter flight Wednesday at March Air Reserve Base in southern California.
The evacuees are expected to stay voluntarily for at least three days in base housing while they are monitored, but health officials stressed that they are not under quarantine.
Military personnel will not be in contact with the evacuees, who will be under the supervision of the Department of Health & Human Services, according to Pentagon officials.
Reports Thursday from China's official media said that 38 more deaths from coronavirus had been recorded, bringing the total in that country to 170.
The World Health Organization in Geneva said Thursday that another 1,844 cases of infection had been reported worldwide over the last 24 hours, bringing the global total to 7,818. The vast majority are in China, with 82 cases reported in 18 other countries.
In announcing the new numbers, the WHO for the first time declared the coronavirus outbreak a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern," signaling to all members of the United Nations the need to take precautions.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control gave a troubling announcement on the first person-to-person spread of coronavirus in the U.S., in which a woman being treated for the illness passed it to her husband.
"We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low," Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said in a conference call with reporters.
Six people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the U.S. -- two each in Illinois and California, and one each in Arizona and Washington state.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.