Cases drop for first time as Africa’s fourth wave of COVID-19 declines – Reuters
Brazzaville, January 20, 2022 – Weekly cases of COVID-19 in Africa have fallen significantly and deaths have fallen for the first time since the peak of the fourth pandemic wave powered by the Omicron variant. The decline is pushing the continent past its shortest upsurge which lasted 56 days.
New reported cases fell 20% in the week to January 16, while deaths fell 8%. The decrease in deaths is still small and further monitoring is needed, but if the trend continues, the spike in deaths will also be the shortest reported so far during this pandemic.
South Africa – where Omicron was first sequenced and which accounted for the bulk of cases and deaths – has seen a downward trend over the past four weeks. Only North Africa has reported an increase in cases over the past week, peaking at 55%. Cases have plummeted in the rest of Africa, where as of January 16 there were 10.4 million cumulative cases of COVID-19 and more than 233,000 deaths.
The pandemic wave fueled by Omicron resulted in the lowest cumulative average case fatality rate – the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases – to date in Africa, standing at 0.68% compared to the previous three waves in which the case fatality rate was over 2.4%. The Omicron variant has now been reported in 36 African countries and 169 worldwide.
“Although the acceleration, peak and decline of this wave has been unparalleled, its impact has been moderate and Africa is emerging with fewer deaths and fewer hospitalizations. But the continent has yet to turn the tables on this pandemic,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.
“As long as the virus continues to circulate, new pandemic waves are inevitable. Africa must not only expand vaccinations but also gain increased and equitable access to essential COVID-19 treatments to save lives and effectively fight this pandemic,” Dr Moeti said.
The African region’s current case fatality rate remains the highest in the world, although it has been lowered over the past two waves. Although improvements have been made in the availability of intensive care unit (ICU) beds for patients with COVID-19, from 0.8 per 100,000 population to 2.0 per 100,000 population, the figures are still far from sufficient to meet the demands of the pandemic. In terms of medication, patients with severe forms of the virus are currently treated with corticosteroids and medical oxygen. Corticosteroids are widely available and relatively affordable, but the availability of medical oxygen remains a challenge across the continent.
Additionally, African countries face major barriers to accessing other COVID-19 treatments due to their limited availability and high cost. Last week, the WHO recommended two new drugs – a rheumatoid arthritis drug called baricitinib and a monoclonal antibody called sotrovimab – bringing the number of WHO-approved COVID-19 treatments to 11. The WHO is reviewing data on two oral antivirals – Pfizer’s paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir, whose makers report show promise in reducing the risk of hospitalization in some patients.
Following initial negotiations with Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, WHO is supporting the shipment of a limited number of vials of tocilizumab to African countries in the coming weeks. Cape Verde and Uganda have already received vials. Burkina Faso, Ghana and Tanzania are expected to receive shipment soon. Tocilizumab is an immunosuppressive drug that can be used to treat patients with severe COVID-19. Further larger scale deliveries of the drug to the mainland are expected. As part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator partnership, negotiations are also underway with other drugmakers to source COVID-19 treatments.
“The deep inequity that has left Africa at the tail end of vaccines must not be repeated with life-saving treatments. Universal access to diagnostics, vaccines and treatments will provide the shortest route to ending this pandemic and no region of the world should be left out of this endeavor,” said Dr Moeti.
In Africa, while vaccine supply has increased in recent months, vaccination rates remain low, with only 10% of the continent’s population fully immunized. Africa has so far received around 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and administered 327 million.
Major efforts are needed to accelerate vaccination in order to reach a large part of the population. In 2022, an average of between 250 and 300 million doses of vaccines will be available each month. By mid-2022, the COVAX Facility expects to have sufficient supply for all countries participating in the Facility’s Advance Market Commitment Option to fully vaccinate 45% of their population.
Dr Moeti spoke at a virtual press conference today hosted by APO Group. She was joined by Dr Andrea Howard, Director of the Clinical and Training Unit and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, as well as Dr Harley Feldbaum, Head of Strategy and Policy at the Global Fund fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Dr Phionah Atuhebwe, Vaccine Introduction Lead Physician, Dr Nonso Ejiofor, Health Operations Team Leader, and Dr Fausta Mosha, Laboratory Physician, were also present from the WHO Regional Office for Vaccine Introduction. Africa to answer questions.
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