Southern Africa faces rising Covid-19 cases

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Southern Africa recorded 46,271 cases in the week ending May 8, 2022, an increase of 32% from the previous week. This is largely due to a spike in South Africa, where recorded weekly cases have quadrupled in the past three weeks. Deaths, however, have not increased as rapidly. South Africa has recorded 376 deaths in the past three weeks, twice as many as in the previous three weeks.

Although cases have increased, the number of hospitalizations in South Africa remains low, the number of patients currently admitted and testing positive for Covid-19 is around 20% of the peak at the end of December 2021. In the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, where the latest wave was first detected, hospital admissions and deaths have increased by 90-100% in the past two weeks compared to the previous fortnight.

Wave powered by Omicron

The current wave is fueled by the Omicron variant in a context of relaxation of health and social measures. Since the beginning of April, South Africa alone has recorded 1,369 cases of the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, 703 cases of BA.4 and 222 cases of the BA.5 sub-variant. However, cases of the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants remain of greatest concern because they contain the highest number of mutations, and it remains unclear how these subvariants affect immunity.

Besides South Africa, Eswatini and Namibia have also seen an increase in cases. These two countries have reported 50% more new cases in the past two weeks compared to the previous two weeks.

The last four waves of the pandemic in Africa occurred towards the middle and end of the year, mainly driven by new variants, winter seasons and large population movements during these holiday periods. In 2021, the mid-year wave fueled by the Delta variant started around May and the end-of-year wave in November with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

“This increase in cases is an early warning sign that we are watching closely. Now is the time for countries to step up their preparedness and ensure that they can put in place an effective response in the event of a new wave of the pandemic,” said Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, Director for Health Emergencies. at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

Improved response

Over the past two years, African countries have significantly improved the response to Covid-19, strengthening key aspects such as surveillance, testing and treatment. It is essential that these measures are maintained and quickly reinforced if the cases of Covid-19 increase further and in many countries.

The continent has also stepped up genomic sequencing. Between January and April 2021, African laboratories reported around 9,000 sequences. This figure has quadrupled to nearly 40,000 over the same period this year.

However, with cases falling earlier this year, countries have scaled back public health measures, including surveillance. Screening tests have also decreased. Between March and May 2022, only 30% of countries reporting testing data met the WHO benchmark of performing 10 tests per 10,000 people per week. This figure is down from the 40% recorded in the months between the waves driven by the Delta and Omicron variants in 2021.

“Based on the experience gained over the past two years, we must do everything to limit the harmful effects of a new wave of the pandemic by strengthening vaccination and measures for screening and preventing the spread of the virus as well as the treatment of patients,” emphasized Dr. Gueye. “To overcome this pandemic, we must remain vigilant. The harsh reality is that complacency comes at a high price.”

So far, Africa has reported 11.7 million cases and around 253,000 deaths. The mainland recorded 52,878 cases in the week ending May 8, up 38 percent from the previous week.

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