The World Health Organisation (WHO), yesterday, said the Omicron variant was reaching more African nations, as weekly COVID-19 cases on the continent surged by 93 per cent. However, there are signs of hope, as preliminary data indicate that hospitalizations across South Africa remain low.
Africa recorded more than 107 000 cases in the week ending on 5 December, up from around 55 000. Five countries accounted for 86% of the cases reported over the past week and all the sub-regions in the continent – up from one the previous week – reported increases in new cases. Southern Africa recorded the highest increase with a 140% hike mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.
The WHO African Region, at a virtual press conference on vaccine rollout and impact of the new variant on the pandemic, facilitated by APO Group, said the continent recorded more than 107,000 infections in the week ended December 5, up from around 55,000. Five countries accounted for 86 per cent of the cases reported over the past week and all the sub-regions – up from one the previous week – reported increases in new cases. Southern Africa recorded the highest with a 140 per cent hike, mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.
The panelists included Coordinator, Immunization and Vaccine Development Programme, WHO Regional Office for Africa, Dr. Richard Mihigo and Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics and Director, African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, Christian Happi.
Research is being intensified to determine whether Omicron is fuelling the surge in cases seen in Africa. Emerging data from South Africa indicates that Omicron may cause less severe illness. Data which looked at hospitalizations across South Africa between 14 November and 4 December found that ICU occupancy was only 6.3 % – which is very low compared with the same period when the country was facing the peak linked to the Delta variant in July. Data from the same two-week period from one of the health districts most impacted by Omicron found that out of more than 1200 admissions, 98 were receiving supplemental oxygen and only four were on ventilation. This is very preliminary data with a small sample size and most of the people admitted to the health facilities were under the age of 40. As the clinical profile of patients changes, the impact of Omicron may change.
Africa currently accounts for 46% of the nearly 1000 Omicron cases reported by 57 countries across different regions of the world. So far, 10 African countries have reported cases. Despite the widespread global presence of Omicron, more than 70 countries have imposed travel bans that are mainly targeting southern African countries – some of which have yet to report any Omicron case.
African countries had agreed to buy 400 million doses of COVID vaccines from J&J, abandoning efforts with Serum, he said.
Then, earlier in 2021, came India’s decision to ban vaccine exports as domestic infections soared, which had created further distrust abroad, and that explained the lack of demand from Africa for Serum’s vaccines, Nkengasong said.
“If now Serum is shipping vaccines to COVAX, I don’t know the mechanics of what volumes they are shipping to COVAX, but it will not surprise me that countries are now looking at that (thinking) ‘OK, we needed you and you were not there for us’,” he said.
Global vaccine-sharing network COVAX is still seeing strong demand for Serum’s AstraZeneca shot, one of its backers GAVI said on Thursday, following comments from Serum that uptake had slowed.
Nkengasong described as “condescending” comments by Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive of Serum, in a recent interview with British newspaper The Times about low demand from Africa.
“It’s a combination of vaccine hesitancy and nations not coming forward and placing orders in the way in which they claim they would, particularly the African nations,” Poonawalla was quoted as saying. “I’m happy to say that on record and I hope they read it because maybe they’ll get activated and do something about it.”
Although vaccine supplies have started increasing to Africa, where just 7.5% of its more than 1 billion people are fully vaccinated, many African nations are finding they do not have the capacity to manage the shots.