COVID-19: Six weeks after surge, Omicron flattening in Africa –WHO

COVID-19: Six weeks after surge, Omicron flattening in Africa –WHO

Lara Adejoro<

After a six-week surge, Africa’s fourth pandemic wave driven primarily by the Omicron variant is flattening, marking the shortest-lived surge to date in the continent where cumulative cases have now exceeded 10 million.

As of 11 January, there have been 10.2 million COVID-19 cases in Africa. Weekly cases plateaued in the seven days to January 9 from the week before. 

WHO Regional Office for Africa in Brazzaville in a statement said Southern Africa, which saw a huge increase in infections during the pandemic wave, recorded a 14 per cent decline in infections over the past week. 

South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, saw a nine per cent fall in weekly infections. 

East and Central Africa regions also experienced a drop. However, North and West Africa are witnessing a rise in cases, with North Africa reporting a 121 per cent increase this past week compared with the previous one, WHO said.

“Across the continent, though, deaths rose by 64 per cent in the seven days ending on 9 January compared with the week before mainly due to infections among people at high risk. 

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“Nonetheless, deaths in the fourth wave are lower than in the previous waves. Hospitalisations have remained low. In South Africa, for instance, around 9 per cent of its over 5600 intensive care unit beds are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients.

“In countries experiencing a surge in cases, the fast-spreading Omicron variant has become the dominant type. While it took around four weeks for the Delta variant to surpass the previously dominant Beta, Omicron outpaced Delta within two weeks in the worst-hit African countries,” it said.

The World Health Organisation Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said early indications suggest that Africa’s fourth wave has been steep and brief but no less destabilising. 

“The crucial pandemic countermeasure badly needed in Africa still stands, and that is rapidly and significantly increasing COVID-19 vaccinations. The next wave might not be so forgiving,” she said.

The UN agency noted that testing, which is crucial to COVID-19 detection and surveillance—including genomic, rose modestly by 1.6 per cent over the past week with over 90 million—mostly polymerase chain reaction —tests carried out across the continent. Twenty-three countries recorded a high positivity rate of over 10 percent over the past week. 

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“Across Africa, WHO is supporting countries to bolster genomic sequencing through training in key areas such as bioinformatics and specimen handling. The organisation is also helping procure and deliver critical laboratory equipment and supplies to countries.

“So far 30 African countries—and at least 142 globally—have detected the Omicron variant. The Delta variant has been reported in 42 countries in Africa. In West Africa where COVID-19 cases are on the rise, the number of Omicron sequences undertaken by countries including Cabo Verde, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal is growing. In Cabo Verde and Nigeria, Omicron is currently the dominant variant.

“While the continent appears to be weathering the latest pandemic wave, vaccinations remain low. Just around 10 per cent of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated. Vaccine supplies to the continent have improved recently, and WHO is stepping up its support to countries to effectively deliver the doses to the wider population,” WHO said.

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Dr. Moeti noted that this year should mark a turning point in Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination drive. 

“With vast swaths of the population still unvaccinated, our chances of limiting the emergence and impact of deadly variants are frighteningly slim,” said Dr. Moeti. “We have the know-how and the tools and with a concerted push we can certainly tip the balance against the pandemic.”

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