Why other African countries need to guard against South Africa COVID-19 variant

WHO and African Centres for Disease Control to strengthen genomic surveillance capacities

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Tuesday 02 February 2021
The South African Covid strain might be present in several African countries, warns WHO

There is a surge in the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and it is being fuelled by the new variants of the virus, the World Health Organization recently warned.

African nations must strengthen their responses against the SARS-COV-2 variants feared to be circulating in the continent, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, regional director, WHO Africa in a virtual press conference on January 28, 2021.

According to the Africa CDC, as of January 29, over 3.5 million people have been infected in the region and over 88,900 people died of COVID-19. Southern and northern African region is affected the most and account for 80 per cent cases and 86 per cent deaths in the continent.

Five African countries — South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Nigeria — and 24 non-African nations have confirmed cases of the South African variant, 501Y.V2.

South Africa registered a 238 per cent spike in coronavirus infections in December.  Hence, Moeti has cautioned that the South Africa variant is very much likely to be circulating undetected in several African countries.

Over 175,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 6,200 deaths were reported in Africa in the last week of January while infections rose by 50 per cent in the continent between December 29, 2020 and January 25, 2021, said WHO.

South Africa is currently witnessing a slight dip in infections and cases at present but 22 African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, continue to see their cases grow, according to WHO.

Deaths rose two-fold in the same four-week period, with over 15,000 concentrated in 10 southern and northern African countries.

Genomic surveillance ramped up

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, Dr Moeti said in her statement.

WHO, in collaboration with the African Centres of Disease Control and Prevention, has set up a COVID-19 genomic sequencing laboratory network.

This consists of laboratories in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.

All African nations have been urged by the WHO 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.

The second wave of the pandemic is worrying due to the poor health infrastructure in Africa. Under these circumstances, testing and tracing are key public health interventions to contain the pandemic. But just 30 million tests have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic.

Hence, the grant of $12 million for the Africa Public Health Foundation announced by the Rockefeller Foundation on January 28 will help in expanding the geographic coverage of testing.

To curb the second wave of the pandemic, WHO called upon the African nations to ramp up testing, isolation of contacts and treatment of patients. Proven prevention measures like wearing masks, hand washing and safe social distancing were also suggested to be enhanced.

A sigh of relief

The existing vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech are effective against coronavirus variants that have emerged in South Africa and United Kingdom, WHO confirmed in a statement released on 27 Jan 2021.

Vaccine developers were aware of virus mutations and had taken this into account, according to WHO Africa on January 22, 2021.  The technology and global governance framework to restructure SARS-CoV-2 vaccines for fighting new variants already exist, the organisation said.

There is no need for a new vaccine at present but if required, Pfizer and BioNTech are ready for it, they said.

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