Coronavirus: New variants fuelling Africa’s second wave, WHO warns

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Brazzaville, Jan. 29, 2021 Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases and deaths are surging in Africa as new, more contagious variants of the virus spread to additional countries, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, said in Brazzaville on Thursday.

Moetti, who was addressing a virtual press conference, said over 175,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 6,200 deaths were reported in Africa in the last week.

She also said infections rose by 50 per cent on the continent between 29 December, 2020, and 25 January, 2021, compared with the previous four weeks.

“In the past week, there has been a small dip in cases in South Africa, but 22 countries continue to see their case numbers surge. Deaths rose two-fold in the same four-week period, with over 15,000 concentrated in 10 mainly southern and northern African nations,” she said.

The 501Y.V2 variant, first identified in South Africa, is predominant and powering record case numbers in South Africa and the sub-region. It has been found in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, the French Indian Ocean region of Mayotte, Zambia and in 24 non-African nations.

“The variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has spread quickly beyond Africa and so what’s keeping me awake at night right now is that it’s very likely circulating in a number of African countries,” Moeti said.

The variant that was initially detected in the United Kingdom has been found in The Gambia and Nigeria. Further research is needed to determine whether the new strain causes more severe illness.

WHO is working to track and tackle new variants by helping countries build and boost the complex genomic surveillance capacities needed to detect and respond to new variants, shipping samples to sequencing laboratories and providing supplies and technical guidance.

“With the Africa Centres of Disease Control and Prevention, WHO helped set up a COVID-19 genomic sequencing laboratory network with laboratories in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.”

The WHO called on all countries to ship at least 20 samples to sequencing laboratories every month to help map the fast-evolving situation and best target responses at all levels.

“In addition to the new variants, COVID-19 fatigue, and the aftermath of year-end gatherings risk powering a perfect storm and driving up Africa’s second wave and overwhelming health facilities,” said Moeti.

“Africa is at the crossroads. We must stick to our guns and double down on the tactics we know work so well. That is mask wearing, hand-washing and safe social distancing. Countless lives depend on it.”

Facing a second wave of infections, African nations must ramp up testing, the isolation of contacts and the treatment of patients, as well as enhancing proven prevention measures.

“Our shared goal is to get ahead of the virus. Unfortunately, the journey will be longer, harder and far more costly in the absence of consistent, all-of-society commitments to blocking infection,” Moeti said.

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