WHO: Africa seeing uptick in COVID cases driven by S.Africa

A boy (second right) stands with his family in the Discovery vaccination site as he waits to receive his first jab of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 in Sandton, Johannesburg, on Dec 15, 2021. (LUCA SOLA / AFP)

BRUSSELS / ADDIS ABABA / LONDON / JOHANNESBURG / NAIROBI / DAKAR – Africa is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 infections, largely driven by a doubling in cases reported in South Africa, the World Health Organization said on Thursday, urging people across the continent to continue to get vaccinated.

Africa had been experiencing a lull in COVID cases, with the WHO earlier this month pointing to the longest-running decline in weekly infections on the continent since the start of the pandemic. 

Africa had been experiencing a lull in COVID cases, with the WHO earlier this month pointing to the longest-running decline in weekly infections on the continent since the start of the pandemic

But last week cases started to pick up in South Africa — the country that has recorded the most infections and deaths in Africa to date — and health authorities there are monitoring for signs of a fifth infection wave.

"This week new COVID-19 cases and deaths on the continent increased for the first time after a decline of more than two months for cases and one month for deaths," Benido Impouma, director for communicable and non-communicable diseases at the WHO's Africa office, told an online news conference.

Impouma said there was no evidence as yet to suggest the rise in cases was linked to any new sub-lineages or a new coronavirus variant.

Helen Rees, executive director of the University of the Witwatersrand's Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in Johannesburg, told the same news conference that an increasing share of South Africa's COVID cases were the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-lineages of the Omicron variant.

But she said the country had so far not seen a huge increase in mortality or intensive care admissions.

Separately, the WHO also said on Thursday that Africa was witnessing a surge in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases including measles, polio and yellow fever.

"The rise in outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases is a warning sign. As Africa works hard to defeat COVID-19, we must not forget other health threats," WHO Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said in a statement.

A sign indicated the way to a free rapid testing center in the city of Duesseldorf, western Germany on Jan 19, 2022, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

EU

The European Commission said that between 60 percent and 80 percent of the EU population was estimated to have been infected with COVID-19, as the bloc enters a post-emergency phase in which mass reporting of cases was no longer necessary.

The EU public health agency said reported cases had covered about 30 percent of the European population so far, but if unreported infections were added, cases could be as high as 350 million, about 77 percent of the European population

In preparing for this less acute phase, European Union governments should ramp up COVID-19 immunizations of children, the bloc's executive body said, signallingit was considering plans to develop antivirals.

"It is estimated that between 60 percent to 80 percent of the EU population has by now had COVID," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a news conference.

The EU public health agency said reported cases had covered about 30 percent of the European population so far, but if unreported infections were added, cases could be as high as 350 million, about 77 percent of the European population.

With a recent drop in infections and deaths linked to COVID-19, the EU is now shifting away from mass testing and reporting of cases, Kyriakides said, confirming what Reuters reported on Tuesday.

But fresh COVID-19 surges are likely as the virus is expected to continue mutating, and therefore countries should have in place plans to shift back into emergency mode, and should ramp up vaccinations, the commission said.

"We are entering a new phase of the pandemic, as we move from emergency mode to more sustainable management of COVID-19. Yet, we must remain vigilant," declared President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

"While the health situation is improving, we must prepare for different scenarios, and do it in a coordinated way," said Margaritis Schinas, European Commission's Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life.

"It is… crucial that the Member States maintain a high level of vigilance and preparedness for new outbreaks and variants- the pandemic is not yet over," said Stella Kyriakides, European commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

Pfizer

Pfizer Inc and its partner BioNTech SE said on Tuesday that they had submitted an application to the US health regulator for the authorization of a booster dose of their COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years.

The companies earlier this month reported data from a mid-to-late stage study showing a third dose of their shot increased protection against the original coronavirus version and the Omicron variant among children in the age group.

US

When the US federal government's mandate requiring masks on transportation was lifted last week, health experts warned that "this is not the time to be pulling back on mitigation measures," The Guardian said in a recent report.

Maureen Miller, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, said she was "horrified." "We're basically ensuring that infectious and susceptible people are together for a chunk of time, with no protection at all," she said.

"I don't think individual responsibility can solve the epidemic," Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Stanford University, was quoted as saying.

Karan noted that wastewater surveillance testing, which is increasingly being used as official reporting of cases becomes less reliable, has indicated a rise in cases as the BA.2 Omicron subvariant continues to spread.

"This is not the time to be pulling back on mitigation measures in shared public indoor spaces," Karan said.

The potential for outbreaks is what drove the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to delay on April 13 the end of the transportation mask mandate by two weeks, from April 18 to May 3, The Guardian reported.

"Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the U.S.," the CDC said in a statement at the time. "In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC order will remain in place at this time."

But then a US district court judge in Florida on April 18 struck down the extension, saying that the agency overstepped its authority, The Guardian said.

Last Wednesday, the justice department said it was filing an appeal to seek to overturn the judge's ruling, leaving it unclear whether the mandate will be lifted permanently.

In a statement, the CDC said it was still studying the potential of another wave and still recommended that people wear masks "in all indoor public transportation settings."

Some public health experts have expressed concern over the uncertainty of the effects of long COVID-19, even in those who initially had mild cases of the virus, The Guardian noted.

Uganda

Uganda will start vaccinating children against COVID-19 next month, health minister Ruth Aceng has said.

The vaccination will start with secondary school children when the school term commences on May 9, she told the media on Wednesday.

"The Pfizer vaccine approved for use in children will be deployed to vaccinate this age group. Pfizer is a two dose vaccine, administered four weeks apart," Aceng said.

According to health ministry figures, over 14,000 children have contracted COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic in the country.

"Vaccinating children will help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 within schools, spread to parents and guardians, school absenteeism and prevent closure of school," the minister said.