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Representing one of the oil and gas industry’s largest reported outbreaks, 30 workers on the ExxonMobil-operated offshore Serpentina platform in Equatorial Guinea have recently tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak on the platform sheds light on industry-specific risk that COVID-19 produces for offshore installations, on which workers typically operate in close quarters and can serve as a breeding ground for the spread of the virus.

In a rapid effort to contain the outbreak, the government of Equatorial Guinea conducted 190 RT-PCR tests on the entire platform, of which 30 infected cases were found. The workers on the Serpentina floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) unit have been evacuated and quarantined while the platform is being disinfected by ExxonMobil and government officials.

While the Zafiro field represents the country’s largest source of crude oil, producing 90,000 barrels per day in January 2020, and is exported primarily through the Serpentina installation, Equatorial Guinea’s Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons stated that production is not expected to be impacted by the outbreak.

“Production has not been affected and we don’t think it will be,” says H.E. Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons. “The FPSO contains three infrastructures: Serpentina, Zafiro and the Jade platform. The Zafiro and Jade are the infrastructures controlling the wells, and the Serpentina is just storing the oil. When we do the decontamination, there will be a period where we stop the production, but in reality, the Serpentina is only storage and will continue receiving crude from the wells.”

In addition to containing the spread of the virus on the Serpentina platform, the government will be conducting RT-PCR tests on all oil and gas infrastructure in the country, as well as instituting stricter guidelines on personnel procedures and restrictions on the number of workers allowed on oil installations.

“There will be more rigorous procedures for those coming onto the platform, especially service providers, because we do believe the spread is coming from people who bring supplies onto the platform,” notes H.E. Minister Lima.

Within the region, Equatorial Guinea has strong domestic infrastructure to support the treatment and identification of COVID-19 through investments in its Equatorial Guinea Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which has been advanced as a potential treatment for COVID-19, as well as hospitals including the Regional Hospital of Malabo and La Paz Medical Center, both located on Bioko Island.

“The big advantage that Equatorial Guinea has that gives confidence to the industry is that we have a huge malaria vaccine project that we are working on, in which we have already invested heavily in testing, personnel and malaria equipment,” H.E. Minister Lima points out. “We had labs before a lot of other countries did to conduct RT-PCR tests for COVID-19 and organized a special hospital for nationals that have COVID-19 through partnering with the Ministry of Health.”

African Producers Take Action

Earlier this month, 19 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on the Total-led Mozambique LNG project located in Afungi, which represents the country’s first onshore liquefaction plant. Construction has since been stopped on the plant, as workers were evacuated and quarantined, with nearly two-thirds of the country’s total cases being traced back to the site of the project.

Before the outbreak, the $20-billion development remained on track for the liquefaction plant to start operating by 2024. The project seeks to feed gas from the Total-operated Golfinho and Atum fields located in offshore Area 1 in northern Mozambique into the two-train liquefaction plant, which will produce 12.9 million tons of LNG per year.

The spread of COVID-19 on oil and gas-related infrastructure poses significant logistical and financial issues, as the global drop in commodity prices and reduced operating budgets make it unfeasible to sporadically or indefinitely halt production on a platform. As a result, several African countries that rely on oil revenues are implementing proactive regulations to prevent the spread of the virus on oil and gas installations.

In Nigeria – a country that has 21 offshore rigs as of March 2020 and for which oil accounts for 65% of government revenues – the Department of Petroleum Resources has mandated oil and gas companies to reduce their offshore workforce and implement 28-day rotations. Only essential staff is allowed to travel to offshore or remote operations.

These restrictions followed after the Nigerian Ports Authority reported six workers on a rig support vessel for oil rigs offshore Lagos as testing positive for COVID-19 at the end of March. With 1,337 confirmed COVID-19 cases to date, Nigeria has since closed its international airports and land borders, and limited the number of cargo vessels allowed to dock at its ports.

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