In rare in-person interview, World Health Organization expert Maria Van Kerkhove tells Today News Africa why people die from COVID-19, even as cases rise in Africa

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

Dr. Maria DeJoseph Van Kerkhove is an American infectious disease epidemiologist and the COVID-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Because of social distancing measures put in place by the WHO to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID 19, Dr. Van Kerkhove and other medical experts at the WHO have granted virtually no in-person interviews despite many requests out of an abundance of caution.

World Health Organization Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove during a press briefing in Geneva on March 9 
World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove gestures as she speaks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 9

In one of her first in-person interviews, Dr. Van Kerkhove met with Today News Africa international correspondent Kristi Pelzel in Geneva to discuss the coronavirus situation in Africa following a recent report in the Lancet that Africa has the highest global mortality rate among critically ill COVID-19 patients despite having fewer reported cases.

According to her, there are many reasons why people die from COVID-19 around the world, and some of them may explain why severely ill COVID-19 patients in Africa may be dying more, although the same situations would apply also for people elsewhere under similar conditions.

“We know that infection of the SARS COV2 virus, the virus that causes COVID 19 is a dangerous virus, and it does kill some people that it infects. We know that the number of deaths that have been reported to WHO today is truly an underestimate,” she said. “There are a number of reasons for this, first, and foremost, we know that people with underlying conditions are at increased risk for death and these include people with liver disease, kidney disease, and HIV. But there are other factors like getting early care, early clinical care.”

Dr. Van Kerkhove said receiving clinical care early can increase chances of survival. She explained that “a delay in care and access to resources like hospital beds, oxygen” may drastically decrease chances of survival.

She said the study in the Lancet was not targeting people in Africa specifically, but looked at hospitalized patients from about 10 countries to understand why people are dying from COVID-19. And the initial conclusions show that other factors rather than the virus increased risk of death.

“We must ensure that vaccines and vaccinations are reaching all people” around the world, including in Africa, she said.

“We recently called for more than 225 million doses more than are needed by September to save frontline workers and people who are at higher risk. It’s starting to happen, but we need it to happen faster,” she said, noting that everyday between 10,000 and 11,000 people are dying from COVID 19.

“And that’s what we know about, and this is an under estimate,” she added.

Dr. Van Kerkhove‘s call for more and faster vaccinations in Africa came even as the World Health Organization Africa Department reported on Thursday that COVID-19 cases in Africa were surging by over 20% week-on-week as the continent’s third wave gains pace and nears the first wave peak of more than 120 000 weekly cases recorded in July 2020.

For instance, COVID-19 cases rose to over 116, 500 in the week ending on June 13, up from the previous week’s nearly 91, 000 cases, following one month of progressively rising case numbers that pushed the continent over the 5 million case mark.

In 22 African countries—nearly 40% of Africa’s 55 nations—cases rose by over 20% in the week ending on June 13. During the same week, deaths rose by nearly 15% to over 2200 in 36 countries. 

New cases recorded weekly in Africa have now exceeded half of the second wave peak of more than 224, 000 weekly cases in early January 2021. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia and Uganda have reported their highest number of new weekly cases since the pandemic began.

“Africa is in the midst of a full blown third wave. The sobering trajectory of surging cases should rouse everyone into urgent action. We’ve seen in India and elsewhere just how quickly COVID-19 can rebound and overwhelm health systems. So public health measures must be scaled up fast to find, test, isolate and care for patients and to quickly trace their contacts,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

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

According to the WHO Africa, cases are rising because of a lack of adherence to transmission prevention measures has fueled the new surge that coincides with colder seasonal weather in southern Africa and as more contagious variants spread. The Delta variant has been reported in 14 African countries and the Alpha and Beta variants have been found in over 25 African countries, WHO said. 

It added that “Africa’s rollout is picking-up speed with over 5 million doses administered in the past five days, compared with around 3.5 million doses per week for the past three weeks. Almost 12 million people are now fully vaccinated, but this is still less than 1% of Africa’s population.”

It said twenty-three African countries have used less than half of the doses they have received so far, including four of the countries experiencing a resurgence.

“About 1.25 million AstraZeneca doses in 18 countries must be used by the end of August to avoid expiration. Seven African countries have already used 100% of the vaccines they received through COVAX and seven more have administered over 80%,” it added.

That data is similar to the information provided by the Africa CDC on Thursday.

According to the Africa CDC, over 5 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in Africa, (5,108,890), accounting for 2.9% of total cases reported globally.

Of that number, over 4.5 million people have recovered, accounting for 89% of the total cases reported in Africa while more than 136,000 deaths have been recorded. That represents about 2.7% of people who contracted the virus in Africa, and 3.6% of deaths reported globally.

But the situation is not the same everywhere in Africa. For instance, only five countries account for 62% of all cases reported in Africa. (South Africa: 35% of total cases (1,774,312), Morocco: 10% of total cases (524,975), Tunisia: 7% of total cases (374,312), Egypt: 5% of total cases (275,010), Ethiopia: 5% of total cases (274,601).

About 21 countries in Africa or 38% of all countries on the continent have reported a case fatality rate (CFR) higher than the global average of 2.2%.

As of Thursday, June 17, 30 countries in Africa reported the Alpha (B.1.1.7) variant, originally reported in the UK, with two additional countries, Djibouti and Somalia, joining the list from the previous week.

About 29 countries in Africa are now reporting the Beta (B.1.351) variant originally reported in South Africa, while 13 countries reported the Delta (B.1.617.2) variant, originally reported in India.

More worrisome, a total of 122,280 new cases were reported in Africa as of Thursday this week, a 29% increase from the previous week.

The new cases are not, however, equally distributed across the continent. For instance, this week, the highest proportion of new cases came from the Southern region (61%), while other regions had lower new cases, (Northern region (21%), Eastern region (14%), Central region (2%), Western region (2%).

There were also difference between countries in each region, with South Africa reporting more cases in the past one week.

As cases continue to increase, more people are also dying. A total of 2,359 new deaths were reported in Africa compared to 1,977 from the previous week, a 19% increase in new deaths from the previous week.

The WHO and the Africa CDC continues to recommend that people should abide by public health measures while countries should continue to test more people.

As of Thursday, over 50 million COVID-19 tests (50,560,523), had been conducted in African Union Member States since the pandemic started, while over One million new tests, (1,014,234), were reported for epidemiological week 23 (7 – 13 June 2021). The data represents an 10% increase from the previous week (923,483 tests reported).

Those tests have shown that the overall positivity rate in Africa was 10.1% and the test-per-case ratio is 9.9.

What’s being done?

Mastercard Foundation:

Last week, the Mastercard Foundation announced that it will be donating $1.3 billion to aid Africa’s vaccination efforts and response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The large sum of money is to be used in partnership with the Africa CDC to save the lives of millions, help acquire vaccines for at least 50 million people, and help foster economic recovery.

“This initiative is about valuing all lives and accelerating the economic recovery of the continent,” said Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation.

The Saving Lives and Livelihoods Initiative will acquire vaccines for at least 50 million people and enable the delivery of safe and efficacious vaccinations to millions more across the continent.

“The initiative will strengthen the continent’s capacity to manufacture vaccines through a focus on human capital development, enabling work opportunities for young people,” Dr. John N. Nkengasong, a Cameroonian virologist and the Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Thursday.

2018 Rollins School of Public Health Hubert Department of Global Health Talk Featuring Dr. John Nkengasong 
2018 Rollins School of Public Health Hubert Department of Global Health Talk Featuring Dr. John Nkengasong

“With regard to this initiative, Africa CDC has organized this week Regional calls/engagements with all the AU regions (Eastern and Southern on Monday June 14th and Central and Northern on June 16th). The Call for the Western region is scheduled for Tuesday 22nd,” he said. “These call serve as a platform to introduce the partnership between Africa CDC and Mastercard Foundation, present the methodology for supporting Member States, and request Member States to submit relevant documents with timelines.”

G7 countries donation

Last week, at the G7 Leaders’ summit, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland announced a donation of an additional 870 million vaccine doses from attendees, with the majority to be delivered through COVAX, the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID 19 Tools Accelerator, within the next year. Attendees included heads of G7 Member States plus Australia, India, South Africa and Republic of Korea, invited as guests.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with the world leaders at the extended family photocall during the G7 Summit at Carbis Bay hotel in Cornwall, UK on 12th June 2021. Photo: Karwai Tang/G7 Cornwall 2021 
United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with the world leaders at the extended family photocall during the G7 Summit at Carbis Bay hotel in Cornwall, UK on 12th June 2021. Photo: Karwai Tang/G7 Cornwall 2021

WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusspoke to leaders at their meeting and urged “many other countries are now facing a surge in cases – and they are facing it without vaccines. We are in the race of our lives, but it’s not a fair race, and most countries have barely left the starting line. We welcome the generous announcements about donations of vaccines and thank leaders. But we need more, and we need them faster”.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director General 
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director General

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