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South Africa – Carletonville, west of Johannesburg, seen here in 2015 – is among the world’s biggest producers of gold and platinum.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. has reported 164 cases of the novel coronavirus among its workers at a gold mine in South Africa, raising new questions about how to prevent the virus from spreading in deep underground mines.

The cases were discovered at Mponeng, the world’s deepest mine, where operations extend as far as four kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface.

In response, the company has temporarily closed the mine and begun tracing the contacts of those who tested positive, using an electronic tracking system. It says the “vast majority” of those who tested positive are showing no symptoms of illness.

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The new outbreak is by far the largest number of cases detected at any South African mine so far. It has tripled the total number of cases in the country’s mining industry, which until Sunday had reported 85 cases.

South African union leaders, worried about the difficulty of physical distancing in underground mines, have called for the testing of all workers before they return to work. But the industry says this would not be feasible because of a shortage of test supplies.

About 450,000 people are employed in South Africa’s mining sector. The country is among the world’s biggest producers of gold and platinum.

To help protect workers from the virus that causes COVID-19, South Africa’s underground mines were limited to 50 per cent of normal capacity when they were allowed to reopen in mid-April after the first phase of the country’s lockdown. But many mining companies have been pushing for a full reopening, saying they cannot be profitable at half-capacity.

In a speech Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that mining and most other economic sectors will be allowed to reopen fully on June 1, as long as they screen their workers and take other precautions. But he also warned that the risk of a “massive increase in infections” in South Africa is now greater than ever.

Other outbreaks of coronavirus in South Africa’s mining sector have included 34 cases at the Dwarsrivier chrome mine, owned by Assore Ltd., and 19 cases at the Marula platinum mine, owned by Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd.

AngloGold Ashanti, in a statement on Sunday, said it detected its first coronavirus case last week. Since then, the South Africa-based company has conducted 650 tests among its workers, with only a handful still awaiting results. This means that about one-quarter of the tests were positive – a much higher rate than anywhere else in South Africa’s mining sector.

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At the Dwarsrivier mine, for example, about 6 per cent of tests were positive. For the industry as a whole, 85 cases were reported from 3,035 tests, for a 3-per-cent positive rate. One death has been reported among those who tested positive.

Nearly 200,000 mine workers have been screened before returning to work so far, according to the Minerals Council South Africa, which represents the industry.

Screening, however, is a process that checks primarily for illnesses or other symptoms of the virus and has difficulty in detecting asymptomatic cases, unless they are contacts of someone who tested positive.

Thuthula Balfour, head of health at the Minerals Council, told a media briefing on Friday that the testing of all workers would not be a “panacea” to protect mines, since a worker who tests negative could be infected the next day. It would be impossible to test 450,000 workers every day, she said.

There are limited testing resources in South Africa, and it would be unfair for the mining industry to monopolize those resources, Dr. Balfour said.

The industry, however, is searching for ways to expand its testing capacity, she said.

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South African media have reported that some mining industry leaders are frustrated in the delays in obtaining coronavirus test results from South Africa’s health laboratories and are looking for ways to speed up the process with their own testing processes.

The National Union of Mineworkers, one of South Africa’s biggest unions, said last week that it was worried by the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the mining industry.

“Workers cannot be sacrificed for profits during the crisis,” the union said, urging its members to refuse to work in any mine where strict measures are not imposed to protect them from the virus.

South Africa’s Labour Court, in a ruling this month, has expressed similar concerns. “Whether in moving between entrances or exits to different parts of a mine, in underground cages, in transport to and from mines, or in mine dormitories, it is impossible for mine workers to avoid contact with others who may be infected,” the court said.

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