Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti
Good morning and good afternoon to everyone, bonjour, bom dia. Welcome to this press conference on the COVID-19 resurgence in African countries and the circulation of variants of concern.
I’m pleased to be joined for this conversation by two veterans at the forefront of the response to many outbreaks and of genetic surveillance in Africa: Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the Director-General of the National Institute for Biomedical Research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Professor Pontiano Kaleebu, Director of the Uganda Medical Research Council and the Virus Research Institute. Welcome Prof Muyembe and Prof Kaleebu. Thank you both very much for making the time to join us. I am also, of course, joined by my team who will respond to questions.
Across the African continent, more than 5.4 million COVID-19 cases have now been reported and 141,000 people have sadly died.
The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before. Cases are doubling every three weeks, compared to every four weeks at the start of the second wave. Almost 202,000 cases were reported in the past week and the continent is on the verge of exceeding its worst week ever in this pandemic.
With the rampant spread of more contagious variants, the threat to Africa rises to a whole new level. Among the 14 African countries now in resurgence, 12 have detected variants of concern, including nine with the Delta variant. As WHO, we are supporting countries to track variants in coordination with a network of reference laboratories. So far, 24,000 samples have been sequenced in Africa. We recognize that this needs to rapidly expand.
The Alpha and Beta variants of concern have been reported in 32 and 27 countries respectively. Alpha is dominant in the North, West and Central parts of the continent, and Beta is more often reported in Southern African countries. Both of these variants are more transmissible than the wild-type virus.
The Delta variant of concern is the most contagious we’ve seen. It’s been found in 16 African countries so far, including three out of the five countries reporting the most new cases. In South Africa, it has overtaken the Beta variant to become dominant. Delta may be up to 60% more transmissible than other variants.
Increased transmissibility means more cases, more hospitalizations and a higher risk of overwhelmed health systems. Some evidence also suggests that the Delta variant is linked to people experiencing longer or more severe illness. This is consistent with devastating news being reported in countries of scores of patients dying due to a lack of oxygen supplies.
Our estimates indicate that oxygen demand is currently 50% higher than it was this time last year. As WHO we are working around the clock to improve access to oxygen. Procurement is underway of thousands of oxygen cylinders to support Uganda, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda, among others. In the coming weeks we will have a regional stockpile of oxygen concentrators, rapid diagnostic tests and other crucial supplies available, to quickly deploy to countries in need. We are also supporting countries to increase oxygen production.
With WHO’s guidance, countries are taking action to curb the rise in cases. All countries in resurgence in the Region have put limits on people gathering to help with physical distancing.
Kenya, Namibia and other countries are implementing restrictions in hotspot zones. They are using nuanced, risk-based approaches, informed by the local epidemiology, in an effort to avoid nationwide lockdowns that we know cause great harm to livelihoods, particularly for low-income households.
We are seeing globally that vaccination offers a clear path towards ending devastating surges of severe cases. Yet just over 1% of Africans are now fully vaccinated, compared to 11% of people globally, and over 46% of people in the United Kingdom and the United States, for example.
While vaccine supply challenges persist, dose sharing can help plug the gaps. We are grateful for the pledges made by our international partners, but we do need urgent action. Africa must not be left languishing in the throes of its worst wave yet.
Studies of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines – which are being shipped to African countries by the COVAX Facility – show that two doses of these vaccines provide high efficacy against severe infection and hospitalization or death with the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants. Vaccines authorized by WHO for emergency use have proven millions of times over that they are safe and efficacious, and I again urge all national and regional regulatory authorities to accept these life-saving products.
To monitor and address any performance gaps in vaccines, we’ve established the African COVID-19 Vaccine Effectiveness Network, and WHO experts are on-the-ground providing guidance to countries in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as supporting sequencing to track variants.
Finally, I’d like to add my voice in condemning the attacks on three humanitarian employees of Médecins Sans Frontieres in Tigray region in Ethiopia last week. They are among 12 humanitarian workers killed since the start of the conflict. The people of Tigray are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 5.2 million people have been affected by the conflict, including more than 2 million without sufficient access to basic services. Fifty-four WHO staff are on the ground in the region and their safety and security is our top priority.
In closing, I’d like to say that while variants may be more transmissible, it’s important to remember that people spread this virus. Every person plays a role in stopping COVID-19 transmission – by getting vaccinated as soon as you can, by wearing a mask, by physically distancing, and frequently washing your hands. These basic prevention measures are still the key to ending this pandemic.
So, I thank you one again for joining us and I look forward to our conversation.