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African region has seen the biggest global rise in cases over the last week with new variant thought to be driving the surge
A second wave of coronavirus infections hitting African countries is “extremely aggressive” and stronger than the first, as fears mount new variants of the virus are behind the faster spread.
Since December, Africa has recorded the fastest rise in new cases in the world. The number of new infections rose by 13 per cent in the past week while it declined or stayed unchanged on every other continent, according to figures from the World Health Organization.
“I think this is serious, the second wave is extremely aggressive,” Dr John Nkengasong, who heads the African Centres for Disease Control (CDC), said on Wednesday.
The region, which was reporting 18,000 new infections at a previous peak in July, is now recording 30,000 new cases every day. Still, Sub-Saharan Africa has so far recorded about 45,000 confirmed deaths and two million cases, a fraction of the world’s caseload.
The rise has largely been driven by South Africa, where a new, more infectious variant of Covid-19 is spreading fast and an influx of deaths has left morgues out of space and coffins to bury victims.
Present Cyril Ramaphosa said the South Africa variant, which is named 501Y.V2 and makes up to 90 per cent of new cases in the country, was likely to be behind the surge.
The variant identified in Africa’s most industrialised nation may be more transmissible, resistant to vaccines and more difficult to pick up through testing, scientists have suggested.
Nigeria, Mauritania and Namibia followed with the highest number of new cases. In the last month, countries like Mali, Uganda, Namibia, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen a surge of cases and many have tightened Covid-19 restrictions.
Zimbabwe started a month-long lockdown this week to try and curb a sharp rise in infections that has overwhelmed hospitals. Neighbouring South Africa is home to millions of Zimbabweans and many people frequently travel between the two countries.
There was “a pretty high likelihood” that the new strain of the virus identified in South Africa could be circulating locally, Rashida Ferrand, a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine professor working at the Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in the Zimbabwean capital Harare told Reuters.
But as is the case with many other African countries, no genomic sequencing has been done to investigate if there were cases of that variant in Zimbabwe yet, she said. And no African country outside of Zambia had so far identified the South African variant, probably because of a lack of genetic testing facilities.
To remedy this, 12 laboratories in the region have been supported by WHO and the Africa CDC to ramp up genome sequencing of the coronavirus. By late December, nearly 5,000 sequences had been produced, but this represented only two per cent of the global total and most of the tests had been carried out in South Africa.
The WHO called on countries to boost genomic surveillance through the network of African genome sequencing laboratories to detect any new mutations.
In Nigeria, health authorities said they were carrying out investigations on a variant distinct from the one already known that was identified in samples collected in August and October.