Africa marks worst pandemic week ever, surpassing second wave peak, but vaccine deliveries picking up

Africa marked its worst pandemic week ever, surpassing the second wave peak during the seven days ending on July 4, 2021. Yet, as the COVID-19 cases climb sharply, there are signs of progress on vaccine deliveries to the continent.

COVID-19 cases have risen for seven consecutive weeks since the onset of the third wave on May 3, 2021. During the week ending July 4, more than 251 000 new COVID-19 cases were recorded on the continent, amounting to a 20% increase over the previous week and a 12% jump from the January peak.

Sixteen African countries are now in resurgence, with Malawi and Senegal added this week. The Delta variant has been detected in 10 of these countries.

“Africa has just marked the continent’s most dire pandemic week ever. But the worst is yet to come as the fast-moving third wave continues to gain speed and new ground,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa. “The end to this precipitous rise is still weeks away. Cases are doubling now every 18 days, compared with every 21 days only a week ago. We can still break the chain of transmission by testing, isolating contacts and cases and following key public health measures.”

Kigali, June 26th 2017, WHO Regional Director Dr. Moeti Matshidiso visit Kigali Genocide Memorial Center 
Kigali, June 26th 2017, WHO Regional Director Dr. Moeti Matshidiso visit Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

The current upsurge comes while vaccination rates remain low in Africa. But there are hopeful signs. After almost grinding to a halt in May and early June, vaccine deliveries from the COVAX Facility are gathering momentum. In the past two weeks, more than 1.6 million doses were delivered to Africa through COVAX. More than 20 million Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses are expected to arrive imminently from the United States through COVAX, in coordination with the African Union. Forty-nine countries have been notified of the allocations they will receive. Other significant donations from Norway and Sweden are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

“COVAX partners are working around the clock to clinch dose-sharing pledges and procurement deals with manufacturers to ensure that the most vulnerable Africans get a COVID-19 vaccination quickly,” said Dr Moeti. “These efforts are paying off. Our appeals for ‘we first and not me first’ are finally turning talk into action. But the deliveries can’t come soon enough because the third wave looms large across the continent.”

So far, 66 million doses have been delivered to Africa, including 40 million doses secured through bilateral deals, 25 million COVAX-supplied doses and 800 000 doses supplied by the African Union African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team. The 50 million doses administered to date account for just 1.6% of doses administered globally. Sixteen million, or less than 2%, of Africans are now fully vaccinated. Nineteen countries have used more than 80% of their COVAX-supplied doses, while 31 countries have used more than 50%.

“With much larger COVID-19 vaccine deliveries expected to arrive in July and August, African countries must use this time to prepare to rapidly expand the roll-out,” said Dr Moeti. “Governments and partners can do this by planning to expand vaccination sites, improving cold chain capacities beyond capital cities, sensitizing communities to boost vaccine confidence and demand, and ensuring that operational funding is ready to go when it is needed.”

WHO has been working with countries to conduct reviews of the first phase of the roll-out so that they can implement the lessons learned during this important second phase. A series of WHO webinars have facilitated intra-country learning from countries that have had successful roll-outs, such as Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, the Kingdom of Eswatini, Ghana and Rwanda.

Dr Moeti spoke during a virtual press conference today facilitated by APO Group. She was joined by Ms Aurélia Nguyen, Managing Director, Office of the COVAX Facility, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, and Professor Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Also on hand to answer questions were Dr Richard Mihigo, Coordinator, Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme, WHO Regional Office for Africa; Dr Thierno Balde, Team Leader, Operational Partnerships, WHO Regional Office for Africa; and Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, Regional Virologist, WHO Regional Office for Africa. 

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