WHO: Africa’s virus upsurge driven by variant, eased curbs

Yunusa Bawa, a community health worker, injects a man with AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in Sabon Kuje on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria, Dec 6, 2021. (GBEMIGA OLAMIKAN / AP)

LONDON / JOHANNESBURG / NEW YORK / LISBON / BRAZZAVILLE – Africa, notably Southern Africa, is facing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases, mainly fueled by the Omicron variant amid relaxed public health and social measures, warned Thursday the World Health Organization (WHO), urging countries to brace for fresh pandemic wave.

Africa has recorded 52,878 COVID-19 cases in the week ending on May 8, a 38 percent rise from the week before, as Southern Africa accounted for 87 percent of the continent's recorded cases in the same period, said Abdou Salam Gueye, director of emergency preparedness and response at WHO regional office for Africa.

The increase in Southern Africa is largely observed in South Africa where weekly recorded cases have quadrupled in the past three weeks

"The current surge is being fueled by the Omicron variant amid relaxed public health and social measures," explained Gueye at an online press conference held in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo.

The increase in Southern Africa is largely observed in South Africa where weekly recorded cases have quadrupled in the past three weeks. In addition to South Africa, Eswatini and Namibia have also recorded an increase in cases, with both reporting 50 percent more new cases in the past two weeks compared with the previous two weeks, said Gueye.

ALSO READ: Africa's COVID-19 cases near 11.41m

Since April 2022, South Africa has recorded 1,369 cases of the Omicron sub-variant BA.2, 703 cases of sub-variant BA.4, and 222 cases of sub-variant BA.5, according to WHO's latest assessments.

However, BA.4 and BA.5 remain the most concerning because the two sub-variants contain the largest number of mutations, and it is still unclear how they affect immunity, noted a statement by WHO at the end of the press conference.

Africa's past four pandemic waves, which have occurred around the middle and the end of the year, are mostly driven by new COVID-19 variants, winter seasons, and high population movement during these holiday periods, explained Gueye. In 2021, the Delta-fueled mid-year surge began around May, followed by another uptick in late November with the emergence of Omicron.

"This uptick in cases is an early warning sign which we are closely monitoring. Now is the time for countries to step up preparedness and ensure that they can mount an effective response in the event of a fresh pandemic wave," said Gueye.

However, with the decline in cases earlier this year, countries have rolled back public health measures, including surveillance and testing.

READ MORE: WHO calls for caution as COVID-19 curbs eased in Africa

Between March and May 2022, only 30 percent of countries reporting testing data met the WHO benchmark of carrying out 10 tests per 10,000 people per week, which is down from 40 percent in the months between the waves driven by Delta and Omicron in 2021.

"With the experience gained over the past two years, we must do all it takes to curb the adverse impacts of a new pandemic wave by stepping up vaccination and the measures to detect and prevent the spread of the virus as well as treat patients," Gueye said. "To beat this pandemic, we must stay vigilant. The harsh reality is that complacency comes at a high price."

To this day, Africa has reported 11.7 million confirmed cases and around 253,000 deaths, according to the statement released Thursday.

Europe

Face masks will not have to be worn in airports and on flights in Europe from May 16, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said on Wednesday.

"From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport," EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said.

ALSO READ: Virus: Chileans without booster shots to face mobility curbs

Italy, France, Bulgaria and other European countries have been relaxing or ending many or all of their measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

A number of US airlines said they would no longer require masks in April, after a federal judge in Florida ruled that the US administration's mask mandate on public transport was unlawful. read more

ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said that even though wearing masks would not be mandatory "it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission."

Rules for wearing masks are expected to vary after the mandatory requirement is lifted, with airlines told to encourage passengers to use masks on flights to or from destinations where wearing a mask on public transport is still required, the agencies said.

Moderna

Moderna Inc has made all necessary submissions required by the US Food & Drug Administration for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents and children, it said on Wednesday.

The company is seeking approval for the use of its vaccines in three distinct age groups – adolescents aged 12 to 17 years, children aged six to 11 and those between six years and six months. The submissions for all three groups were made on May 9, it said.

Portugal

The COVID-19 reproduction number in Portugal has again reached 1.17, which "very intensely" points to the emergence of a "sixth wave of the pandemic," the country's Higher Technical Institute said in a report released by the Lusa news agency on Wednesday.

Compared to its previous report dated April 19, the IST working group noted an increase in the likelihood of another wave of the pandemic.

According to the IST, the "abrupt end to face mask mandates" in Portugal "seems to have had a very marked effect on the current increase in COVID-19 cases."

The experts said that the lifting of the mask mandate was a "right measure" only for schools, but it is causing "excessive contagion" in business and corporate environments, where people should return to teleworking.

A healthcare worker receives a Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, Feb 17, 2021. (NARDUS ENGELBRECHT / AP)

South Africa

South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases on Wednesday reported 10,017 new COVID-19 cases, the first day since January the institute has reported more than 10,000 new infections.

Health authorities have warned South Africa may be entering a fifth wave of infections driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants. 

South Africa has recorded the most coronavirus cases and deaths on the African continent and only exited a fourth wave in January.

Experts had predicted a fifth wave could start during the southern hemisphere winter months, sometime in May or June.

Just under 50 percent of South Africa's adult population of roughly 40 million have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with 45 percent of adults fully vaccinated.

The pace of vaccinations has slowed in recent months, with officials warning that shots risk being discarded. 

Initially the vaccination campaign was dogged by difficulties securing early supplies but later by hesitancy.

In this Nov 5, 2020, file photo, Deb Dalsing, nurse manager of the COVID-19 treatment unit at UW Health assists nurse Ainsley Billesbach with her personal protective equipment at the hospital in Madison, Wis. US (JOHN HART / WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL VIA AP)

US

As the US COVID-19 deaths near 1 million, pandemic data show that more than 700,000 people 65 years and older in the country have died and men died at higher rates than women, reported The Boston Globe last week.

Three out of every four deaths were people 65 years and older; about 255,000 people 85 years and older died; 257,000 were 75 to 84 years old; and about 229,000 were 65 to 74 years old, according to the report.

Meanwhile, "white people made up most of the deaths overall, yet an unequal burden fell on Black, Hispanic and Native American people considering the younger average age of minority communities," said the report. "Racial gaps narrowed between surges then widened again with each new wave."

"A million things went wrong and most of them were preventable," elder care expert Charlene Harrington of the University of California, San Francisco, was quoted as saying.

Harrington, 80 years old, hoped that the lessons of the pandemic lead US health officials to adopt minimum staffing requirements for nursing homes, "then maybe I can retire." ■