New coronavirus variants are fueling a ‘second wave’ in Africa, WHO warns

Funeral workers wearing personal protective equipment carry a casket during the burial of a COVID-19 victim, amid a nationwide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, at the Olifantsvlei cemetery, south-west of Joburg, South Africa January 6, 2021.

Siphiwe Sibeko | Reuters

New and more contagious variants of Covid-19 are spreading across Africa, causing a spike in infections and deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

More than 175,000 new cases and more than 6,200 deaths were reported across the continent in the week leading up to Thursday, the WHO said in an update, while infection rates rose 50% between Dec. 29 and Jan. 25 compared to the previous four weeks.

Deaths doubled over the same period to 15,000, concentrated in 10 mainly southern and northern African nations, with 22 countries now seeing infection rates surging.

“The variant which was first detected in South Africa has spread quickly beyond Africa and so what’s keeping me awake at night right now is that it’s very likely circulating in a number of African countries,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said at a virtual press conference on Thursday.

The variant first discovered in South Africa is driving record infection rates in the subcontinent, and has now been identified in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and the French Indian Ocean region of Mayotte, Zambia, the WHO confirmed, along with 24 nations outside of Africa.

Meanwhile, the highly contagious strain initially detected in the U.K. has now made its way to Nigeria and Gambia.

The Africa CDC has set up sequencing laboratories across the continent, and the WHO called on all nations to ship at least 20 samples to the sequencing labs per month in order to help coordinate a targeted response.

“In addition to the new variants, COVID-19 fatigue, and the aftermath of year-end gatherings risk powering a perfect storm and driving up Africa’s second wave and overwhelming health facilities,” Moeti said.

“Africa is at a crossroads. We must stick to our guns and double down on the tactics we know work so well. That is mask wearing, handwashing and safe social distancing. Countless lives depend on it.”

Infections over the past week dipped slightly in South Africa, the worst affected country on a continent which has for the most part avoided the exponential spread of the virus that has brought many major economies to a standstill at various points over the past year.

As of Friday morning, South Africa had recorded 1,437,798 cases of Covid-19 and 43,105 deaths. The entire continent has reported around 3.5 million cases and 88,985 deaths, according to a BBC aggregation of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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