Africa to raise guard against Covid-19: emergency meeting on ...

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Africa to raise guard against Covid-19: emergency meeting on cards

India’s catastrophic rise in infections and death seen as warning to continent

Senior features writer
Rwandans line up to get Covid-19 vaccinations, with the AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in hand.
Rwandans line up to get Covid-19 vaccinations, with the AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in hand.
Image: World Health Organisations/Africa region

Africa needs to learn from the devastation Covid-19 is causing in India to avoid a similar scenario, warned director of the Africa CDC Dr John Nkengasong on Thursday at his weekly update.

By Thursday 4.5 million people had been infected with Covid-19, more than four million had recovered on the continent, and 121 000 deaths had been reported.

“We are watching with total disbelief what is happening in India. This speaks to the fact that we as a continent must be very, very prepared. We must continue to raise our guard,” he said.

All African ministers of health will be called to a meeting on May 8 convened by the AU “to put everybody on alert”, Africa’s health chief announced.

Western commentators are raising concerns that China’s vaccine diplomacy — offering African states Covid-19 vaccines when they direly need them — will tip countries to form closer ties.

Raising his hand vertically in the air, he said the daily average of Covid-19 infections went up like that to 350,000 cases a day, “a scenario which is catastrophic for the health system, for any health system”.

Africa has a population size similar to India’s 1.3 billion but lacks its drug and vaccine manufacturing capabilities.

“I want to remind everyone that the continent continues to experience Covid-19 vaccine scarcity,” said Nkengasong, warning that India’s decision not to export Covid-19 vaccines would severely set back Africa’s target of 60% Covid-19 vaccine coverage by 2021.

“We are living a world which is extremely uncertain with respect to vaccines,” he said.

Only one percent of Africa’s population has received a Covid-19 vaccine, with only 0.37% having got both doses by Monday, Nkengasong said.

About 17.9 million doses had been given to people, out of 37.1 million vaccines acquired by countries.

Factors that could drive an explosion of Covid-19 in Africa, similar to that raging in India, include the following, according to Nkengasong:

  • Low vaccination coverage;
  • A “false sensation of beating the virus”, which results in decrease in public safety measures that prevent the virus spreading, such as mask wearing;
  • Tanzania, which borders eight countries, has not reported Covid-19 cases since May 2020; and
  • Virus variants, given that “the virus will continue to mutate, as is the nature of such disease threats”.

Four more countries — Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar and Togo, which are not geographically close — have detected the B.1.351 variant, first identified in SA, bringing the number of countries with this variant to 22.

Only one percent of Africa's people have got Covd-19 vaccines.
Only one percent of Africa's people have got Covd-19 vaccines.
Image: Africa CDC

One additional country is reporting the B.1.1.7, first identified in the UK, bringing the total with this strain to 20 countries.

The average Covid-19 death (case fatality) rate remains at 2.7%, and the number of countries reporting a higher rate than the global average of 2.1% remains the same as last week, at 21.

Africa’s public health chief urged states to quickly use their vaccine doses and protect as many citizens as they could with vaccines.

He confirmed the 400 million doses of the J&J vaccine had been secured with a contract and $350m payment already made to manufacturer Janssen.

The Africa CDC informed member states at the weekend that the current evidence on the Janssen Covid-19 vaccine — after reviews of its safety and efficacy— indicated “its benefits outweigh the risks”, notably in regions where the variant identified in SA was prevalent.

Nkengasong said the Africa CDC was talking to all the vaccine producers, including those from China and Russia, but no agreement had been reached with any besides Janssen.

Western commentators are raising concerns that China’s vaccine diplomacy — offering African states Covid-19 vaccines when they direly need them — will tip countries to form closer ties.

Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac are among those in use by African countries providing vaccinations, including Morocco and the Seychelles.

Morocco is the most successful state in Africa at providing Covid-19 vaccines to citizens, with 11.4% of them fully vaccinated, 8.9 million doses used and 83% of its supply.

Ghana has protected the next highest proportion of its people with the vaccine: 2.71%, using up all of the 842,650 doses it was given, and Kenya is the third highest, having vaccinated 1.53% of its population.

What is going on India can happen anywhere.
Dr John Nkengasong

In Southern Africa, Botswana and Namibia are among the six countries reporting the highest number of new cases per day per million population.

The highest number of new cases is Seychelles (579), followed by Cabo Verde (448), Botswana (260), Tunisia (176), Libya (68) and Namibia (64).

Overall, on average new cases over the past month (March 29-April 25) remain basically unchanged with a 0.3% drop in incidence reported.

A regional breakdown finds on average:

  • 12% increase in the northern region
  • 5% increase in the southern region
  • 4% decrease in the eastern region
  • 11% decrease in the western region
  • 18% decrease in the central region

New deaths have gone up on average by 3% overall, with the DRC (21%), Kenya (8%) and Ethiopia (7%) being the worst affected of the most populous six countries, which include SA (4% average decrease).

The DRC — which reported a high level of vaccine hesitancy compared to others in a 15-country survey towards the end of 2020 — will return 1.3 million of the 1.7 million vaccine doses delivered to it by the global vaccine sharing platform Covax, according to Unicef.

Unicef announced the 1.3 million doses would be redistributed because the uptake in vaccinations, reportedly arising from people’s safety concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine, was slow and the expiry date was June 24 on this consignment.

Nkengasong said that was a concern, but he was confident people’s behaviour would change when they saw the benefits the vaccine offered for themselves.

“Again, we continue to urge member states to quickly use their vaccine consignments and vaccinate as many citizens as they can,” he said, reminding people to avoid mass gatherings and practise social distancing, wear masks and wash their hands.

“We cannot let our guard down. We cannot be indifferent to what is going on in India. It can happen anywhere. We must act collectively to ensure such as scenario does not happen on the continent,” Africa’s health chief declared.