Africa’s COVID-19 third wave gathers pace fueled by highly contagious variants, WHO warns

AFRICA – Coronavirus infections in Africa are surging as a third wave of the pandemic gains pace in the continent and nears the first wave peak of more than 120,000 weekly cases recorded in July 2020, fueled by the spread of more contagious variants, the World Health Organization has said.

The continent which was not hit hard by the pandemic like most other regions, has so far recorded 136,030 deaths from 5,108,888 cases, according to official figures by Africa CDC.

The more-transmissible Delta variant, which was first detected in India, has been reported in 14 African countries and the Alpha and Beta variants, first detected in Britain and South Africa respectively, have been found in over 25 African countries.

Africa is in the midst of a full-blown third wave. The sobering trajectory of surging cases should rouse everyone into urgent action,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa said.

Along with other factors, a lack of adherence to transmission prevention measures has fueled the new surge that coincides with colder seasonal weather in southern Africa and as more contagious variants spread.

In 22 African countries, cases rose by more than 20 per cent in the week ending 13 June, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia and Uganda reporting their highest levels of new weekly cases since the pandemic began, according to WHO data.

Ms Moeti called the situation “an urgent wakeup call” for faster vaccination rollouts in Africa against COVID-19. Less than one per cent of the continent’s population has been fully vaccinated so far.

Vaccination

In the main, European countries were hit harder in the first and second waves of Covid than most African nations, but now, while vaccination campaigns in Europe are surging ahead, as in many richer parts of the world, most of Africa remains barely protected.

In fact, less than one per cent of Africa’s population, or almost 12 million people, have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to date, Dr Moeti said.

Most African countries relied on the UN-led Covax vaccine distribution scheme for vaccines. The scheme has faced major delays after India, the biggest producer of jabs for Covax, focused, instead, on tackling its own coronavirus surge.

Nonetheless, even when vaccines are available, there have been issues actually getting the jabs in arms, the WHO said. 

For example, a lack of funding for the roll-out, technical challenges and vaccine hesitancy have meant that 23 African countries have only managed to use around half of their already limited allocations of vaccines, Dr Moeti said.

That includes four of the five currently worst-affected countries: Tunisia, Zambia, Uganda and Namibia. Alongside South Africa, these countries account for 76 per cent of new cases across Africa in the last week, according to the WHO.

About 1.25 million AstraZeneca doses in 18 countries must be used by the end of August to avoid expiration, it said, calling on countries to emulate the seven countries which have managed to administer all of the jabs they have got, and another seven countries which have distributed more than 80 per cent of them.

However, Dr Moeti said that vaccine campaigns are speeding up as five million people have been vaccinated in the last five days, compared to around 3.5 million per week for the last three weeks.

But that is still too slow to help countries already in desperate need.

To exemplify this, Uganda said it would appeal to its neighbors for oxygen amid shortages and overwhelmed hospitals in its latest spike of infections.

Nine doctors have died in the last fortnight, and local public health experts have warned that the situation is at risk of becoming like India.

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