World Health Organization regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE
World Health Organization regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, has urged governments to step up tried and tested methods for slowing the coronavirus, warning that Covid-19 fatigue, the aftermath of year-end gatherings and more contagious variants could drive up infections and overwhelm health systems.

“Africa is at a crossroad and all Africans must double down on the measures that work so well — frequent hand-washing, social-distancing and masks,” she said. “Our shared goal is to get ahead of the virus. Unfortunately, the journey will be longer, harder and far more costly in the absence of consistent, all-of-society commitments to blocking infection.” 

Until recently, many African countries had recorded relatively few coronavirus infections, but cases have risen sharply since November. AU states have so far reported just shy of 3.5-million cases, only 3.5% of the global total, but have seen a 17% increase in the past week, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is growing concern over a new variant, first detected in SA, known as 501Y.V2, which scientists estimate to be 50% more contagious than older lineages. The 501Y.V2 variant emerged in the Eastern Cape’s Nelson Mandela Bay in October and has quickly become the dominant form of the coronavirus in all nine provinces, said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal research and innovation sequencing platform at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The variant is “powering record case numbers” in the region, according to the WHO. It has been detected in several other African countries, including Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Mozambique and the French Indian Ocean region of Mayotte, as well as 24 non-African nations.

“What’s keeping me awake at night right now is that it’s very likely circulating in a number of African countries,” said Moeti.

Africa is also vulnerable to other highly contagious new variants, she said, noting that the B117 lineage detected in the UK has already been found in Ghana and Nigeria. An isolated case has also been detected in SA, said De Oliveira. Another highly contagious variant called P1 has been detected in Brazil.

All three variants have scientists worried because they carry several mutations on the spike protein, which the coronavirus uses to enter human cells.

“This should be a wake-up call to control transmission as a global community. We have to really decrease transmission to avoid new variants that could be transmitted faster or evade immune pressure,” said De Oliveira.

Scientists are evaluating whether Covid-19 vaccines are less effective against the new variants. De Oliveira said he was optimistic the shots would provide protection against these variants, despite worrying laboratory studies showing they could evade antibodies generated in response to infection with older lineages, because vaccines generally elicit a stronger immune response than natural infection.


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