(Bloomberg) — As Ebola rages in Sierra Leone, the outbreak has claimed almost 2,000 lives and contributed to the collapse of the iron ore industry. Now the virus is hitting the diamond mines.
At the latest hotspot, in the gem-rich Kono district along the Guinea border, two workers at Octea Ltd.’s Koidu mine, Sierra Leone’s largest, were infected last week and are being treated. The outbreak may mean that production at the mine will miss its annual target — measured in carats — by as much as 20 percent, Chief Executive Officer Brett Richards said.
“Everyone thought this was under control and we were seeing the top of the curve,” Richards said in a phone interview yesterday. “It completely went out of control a couple of weeks ago. We may be uncovering a bit of an iceberg here.”
Health workers have rushed to the area to bury dozens of bodies and cope with more than 100 cases. Beyond the dreadful human toll, Ebola is also causing fuel-supply difficulties and production outages, Richards said. The district is under quarantine, barring entry to commercial traffic except for essential deliveries, and restricting people to their homes at night.
Sierra Leone is Africa’s fifth-largest diamond producer by value, according to Kimberley Process data, mining $184 million worth of the precious stones last year. A fall in diamond revenue would further damage Sierra Leone, a country already reeling from the collapse of its iron-ore mining industry.
Pile of bodies
As of Dec. 9, Kono district had 119 reported Ebola cases, according to the World Health Organization. Reacting to reports from the country’s ministry of health, the WHO sent a field epidemiologist to the region about 10 days ago, later joined by investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 11 days, two teams buried 87 bodies, which were piling up at the only hospital in the area, the WHO said in a report this week. The Red Cross is building a treatment center as the WHO advises surveillance investigators, community mobilizers and infection controllers.
The Kono region is renowned for the quality of its diamonds, including the 969.8-carat Star of Sierra Leone unearthed in 1972, the third-largest stone ever discovered. Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources Ltd. owns Octea.
The mine supplies Tiffany & Co. after the luxury retailer lent $50 million to the company in 2011 in return for a supply agreement. Koidu had been targeting production of 550,000 to 600,000 carats this year.
One of Octea’s infected workers contracted Ebola from a family member. He had been to work the previous day outside of the mine compound, Richards said. The company has isolated and tested everyone who worked with the infected employees, he said.