‘Dominant’ S Africa strain powering COVID second wave in Africa

WHO says more transmissible variant fuelling surge in case loads, as Africa CDC agrees deal for 400 million vaccine doses.

A man walks past a coronavirus-themed mural promoting the use of face mask in public place, in Sebokeng, Vereeniging [Themba Hadebe/AP]

Africa has secured a further 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines as the continent battles a second wave of the coronavirus fuelled by the South African variant that the World Health Organisation says has become the dominant strain on the continent.

The new doses – of the AstraZeneca vaccine – have been secured through the Serum Institute of India, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

With the new doses, on top of the 270 million doses announced earlier this month from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, “I think we’re beginning to make very good progress,” Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters.

Parts of the African continent are seeing a strong resurgence in coronavirus infections, with the WHO noting that 22 countries continued to see case numbers surge in the past week as a result of the emergence of the new 501Y.V2 variant, which was first identified in South Africa.

The UN’s health agency said the variant was now “predominant and powering record case numbers in South Africa and the sub-region” and had also been found in 24 countries outside Africa.

“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,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa said in a statement.

A variant that was initially detected in the United Kingdom and is also more transmissible has been found in The Gambia and Nigeria, Moeti said.

Nkengasong called the spread “very aggressive” and warned that the second wave had not yet peaked.

Africa’s case fatality rate of 2.5 percent remains above the global one of 2.2 percent, and 14 of Africa’s 54 countries have case fatality rates above 3 percent. The continent has more than 3.4 million confirmed virus cases, including more than 87,000 deaths.

The continent of 1.3 billion people is racing to obtain enough vaccines for the goal of vaccinating 60 percent of its population to achieve herd immunity, and Moeti urged African countries to ramp up testing, the isolation of contacts, treatment of patients, and prevention measures in order to contain the outbreak until inoculations can be rolled out.

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

Officials have repeatedly urged rich countries that have stockpiled vaccines to share with the developing world.

Africa is expected to receive an additional 600 million doses through the WHO-led global COVAX initiative aimed at helping low-income countries.

In a separate briefing, the WHO’s Richard Mihigo said the first doses should roll out “probably by mid-next month, and by March we’ll definitely see most of the countries vaccinating, targeting the high-risk groups.”

He called it a “slow start” but said he expected the process to accelerate in the coming months.

As for the 270 million doses announced earlier, “we know very well some of these doses will not be available soon,” Mihigo said. He did not give details.

He said that overall, reaching 35 percent of Africa’s population with COVID-19 vaccines by the end of this year could be a “realistic assumption”.

Mihigo also criticised the global differences in cost for COVID-19 vaccines.

It is a “shocking fact that a rich country can pay less than a country that is struggling,” he said, pointing out that higher-income African countries like South Africa are not eligible for donated vaccines. “It’s time, really, to call for a fair price for those countries … at minimum, at the same price rich countries are getting.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies