Pivotal point in Africa’s COVID-19 third wave

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BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of the Congo – Following eight consecutive weeks of a fast-moving surge, new COVID-19 cases in Africa have slowed down, driven by a sharp drop in South Africa which accounts for the bulk of the continent’s reported cases, although this development may be short-lived, new data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows.

New case numbers in Africa fell by 1.7 percent to nearly 282 000 in the week ending July 18. Yet removing data from South Africa, which accounts for 37 percent of these cases, reveals a uniquely steep and unbroken nine-week surge. The current peak is 80 percent higher than Africa’s previous peak when data from South Africa is excluded. Without the data from South Africa, cases rose in Africa by 18 percent to over 182, 000 in the week ending on July 18.

“Be under no illusions, Africa’s third wave is absolutely not over. This small step forward offers hope and inspiration but must not mask the big picture for Africa. Many countries are still at peak risk and Africa’s third wave surged up faster and higher than ever before. The Eid celebrations which we marked this week may also result in a rise in cases. We must all double down on prevention measures to build on these fragile gains,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.

Twenty-one African countries have seen cases rise by over 20 percent for at least two weeks running, which is an increase of three countries over the previous week and the highly transmissible Delta variant has been found in 26 African countries. The Alpha variant is in 38 countries and Beta is in 35. South Africa’s gains remain uncertain as protests have disrupted the country’s response, including disease surveillance and testing. Violent mass gatherings could also trigger another rise in cases.

This comes as WHO urges African countries to urgently ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations as the squeeze on vaccine shipments eases. Around 60 million doses are set to arrive in the coming weeks from the United States of America, Team Europe, the United Kingdom, purchased doses and other partners through the COVAX Facility. Over half a billion doses are expected through COVAX alone this year.

“A massive influx of doses means that Africa must go all out and speed up the vaccine rollout by five to six times if we are to get all these doses into arms and fully vaccinate the most vulnerable 10% of all Africans by the end of September,” said Dr Moeti.

Nearly 70 percent of African countries will not reach the 10 percent vaccination target for all countries by the end of September at the current pace. Around 3.5 million to four million doses are administered weekly on the continent, but to meet the September target this must rise to 21 million doses at the very least each week.

Just 20 million Africans, or 1.5 percent of the continent’s population, are fully vaccinated so far and just 1.7 percent of the 3.7 billion doses given globally have been administered in Africa. High-income countries have administered 62 times more doses per person than low-income countries.

The World Bank estimates that in addition to the US$ 9.5 billion needed to buy enough vaccines to ensure adequate protection from COVID-19, another US$ 3 billion is required to fund operations.

“To increase uptake, countries must scale up operations, investments on operational costs and address vaccine confidence. Countries need sufficient vaccine sites and health care workers, sufficient vaccine storage, and adequate transport and logistics for distribution,” said Dr Moeti.

To boost the uptake of vaccines, African countries must address the fear of side-effects which are major drivers of people’s reluctance to get vaccinated. This includes using political and traditional leaders as vaccine champions, community mobilization efforts and addressing mis- and disinformation on social media.

WHO is working with African countries to better plan and cost operational and delivery processes to support the second phase of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, including conducting reviews of the first.

Dr Moeti spoke during a virtual press conference today facilitated by APO Group. She was joined by Dr Osagie E. Ehanire, minister of health, Nigeria, and Dr Sidi Zahaf, minister of health, Mauritania. Also on hand to answer questions were Dr Richard Mihigo, Coordinator, Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme, WHO Regional Office for Africa; Dr Thierno Balde, Team Leader, Operational Partnerships, WHO Regional Office for Africa; and Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, Regional Virologist, WHO Regional Office for Africa.

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