Deadly COVID-19 Delta variant taking hold in Africa

pandemic awareness trainings in five internally displaced persons camps
Conducting pandemic awareness trainings. Copyright: USAID in Africa, United States government work

Speed read

  • Africa’s COVID-19 cases increased by 25 per cent in six weeks to July
  • Delta variant, vaccine inequity and nonadherence to preventive measures blamed
  • More COVID-19 vaccines needed to avoid repeat of HIV/AIDS tragedy

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[KAMPALA] The highly infectious COVID-19 Delta variant has been reported in 22 of the 55 African states, and it could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the coming months, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The report published last week (9 July) says that the number of COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled with 30,000 fatalities on the continent since the end of April when the Delta variant emerged in Uganda.

“Panic and fear are taking hold in many communities as the number of people losing family [members] and friends rises exponentially,” the report says.

“The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before.”

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Office for Africa

Africa’s more than 103,184 COVID-19 deaths could hit 500,000 by October if vaccines are not made available to contain the raging variants, a meeting also heard.

New COVID-19 cases progressively increased in Africa for six weeks running and rose by 25 per cent weekly to almost 202,000 by last month (27 June), according to the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for Africa.

Deaths increased by 15 per cent across 38 African countries to almost 3,000 in the same period. The surge comes as less than three per cent of people have received even a single vaccine dose.


“The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before. The rampant spread of more contagious variants pushes the threat to Africa up to a whole new level,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa during a virtual press briefing on 1 July.

“More transmission means more serious illness and more deaths so everyone must act now and boost prevention measures to stop an emergency becoming a tragedy.”

The Delta variant first identified in India is up to 60 per cent more transmissible than other variants, according to Pontiano Kaleebu, the executive director Uganda Virus Research Institute. The variant is in three of the five countries in Africa — Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia — reporting the highest caseloads last month.

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In Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Delta variant had been detected in 97 and 76 per cent of the total samples analysed respectively, the WHO meeting heard.

The WHO attributes rising cases to a lack of adherence to transmission prevention measures, vaccine inequity, and ineffective implementation of public health and social measures.

As of this week (12 July), only 4.24 per 100 people in Africa had received at least one dose of COVID-19 compared with the UK and US figures of 119.02 and 100.05 respectively per 100 people, according to COVID-19 tracker, Our World in Data.

David Sserwadda, the head of the vaccine advisory committee in Uganda, tells SciDev.Net that it will be a worldwide trap “if one region vaccinates and another does not”.

Moeti added: “While supply challenges grind on, dose sharing can help plug the gap. We are grateful for the pledges made by our international partners, but we need urgent action on allocations. Africa must not be left languishing in the throes of its worst wave yet.”

Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the WHO country representative to Uganda, called on global North countries to share their COVID-19 vaccines with African countries and others through the COVAX facility, which delivered 1.6 million vaccines over the past weeks and 20 million doses since the roll-out started in the continent.

Strive Mayisiwa, the African Union Special Envoy and head of the African COVID-19 vaccine acquisition task team, said: “We are not going to allow this pandemic to become like HIV, and go on and on… killing our people. We are not going to allow a fourth and the fifth and the sixth wave of this pandemic.”

John Nkengasong, the director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, recalled a similar experience in the early fight against HIV/AIDS.

“I spent 29 years in the area of HIV/AIDS and saw first-hand the suffering, the trauma of our continent … where millions of Africans died because anti-HIV drugs to treat HIV patients were available but they were not accessible on the continent… Never again. Never should history repeat itself,” said Nkengasong. “Not on our watch.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

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