The World Health Organisation (WHO), yesterday, said the Omicron variant was reaching more African nations, as weekly COVID-19 cases on the continent surged by 93 per cent. However, there are signs of hope, as preliminary data indicate that hospitalisations across South Africa remain low.
The WHO African Region, at a virtual press conference on vaccine rollout and impact of the new variant on the pandemic, facilitated by APO Group, said the continent recorded more than 107,000 infections in the week ended December 5, up from around 55,000. Five countries accounted for 86 per cent of the cases reported over the past week and all the sub-regions – up from one the previous week – reported increases in new cases. Southern Africa recorded the highest with a 140 per cent hike, mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.
The panelists included Coordinator, Immunisation and Vaccine Development Programme, WHO Regional Office for Africa, Dr. Richard Mihigo and Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics and Director, African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, Christian Happi.
Also present were Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, Regional Virologist, WHO Regional Office for Africa, and Dr. Thierno Balde, Regional COVID-19 Incident Manager, WHO Regional Office for Africa.
The panelists said research was being intensified to determine whether Omicron is behind the surge.
Emerging statistics from South Africa show that Omicron might cause less severe illness. The data, which reviewed hospitalisations across the country between November 14 and December 4, found that Intensive Care Unit (ICU) occupancy was only 6.3 per cent – which is very low compared with the same period when the country was facing the peak linked to the Delta variant in July.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said: “With Omicron now present in nearly 60 countries globally, travel bans that mainly target African countries are hard to justify.”
To ramp up response and check the surge, WHO is supporting countries to improve genomic surveillance to track the virus and detect other potential variants of concern.
This comes as Nigeria recorded 268 new infections in 10 states on Wednesday, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) confirmed.
The new figure marked a significant jump from the 107 cases reported on Tuesday.
NCDC stated yesterday that Lagos State, the epicentre of the virus, reported more 84.2 per cent of the new infections.
The state, it added, reported a backlog of 225 cases for December 7.
Rivers State followed on the log with 17 cases, Enugu, 10 cases and Edo, five cases. Bauchi and Ogun reported three cases each, while Oyo posted two cases.
NCDC added that the fatality toll stood at 2,980 as of Wednesday when confirmed infection figure rose to 215,164. It added that there were 4,664 active cases, while 207,520 infected persons had been treated and discharged from hospitals.
ALSO, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) has decried the discriminatory travel restrictions and other sanctions against Nigeria and some other African countries over the Omicron variant.
Its President, Prof. Innocent Ujah, who stated this yesterday in Abuja, urged government at all levels to institute more rigorous and sustainable surveillance systems, as well as strict reciprocal international health travel measures to protect the citizens.
Relatedly, the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA) confirmed that the Federal Government had reviewed its vaccination programme and resolved to introduce the booster dose using the Pfizer Bio-N-Tech jab across the federation.
The agency’s Executive Director, Dr. Faisal Shuaib, who made the disclosure at the kick-off of the mass vaccination campaign for refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) yesterday in Abuja, said the decision followed the detection of the Omicron variant in the country.
He added that Nigeria has put in place necessary measures and precautions for vaccine monitoring and accountability.
Moreover, the United States Embassy in Abuja, yesterday, announced the arrival of 2.5 million doses.
It said the NPHCDA took delivery of the vaccines and ensured that they were taken to cold storage in preparation for distribution to over 3,000 health facilities across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The Embassy, which also listed efforts by the U.S. to support the mass vaccination campaign, stated the American nation had donated over 13 million doses to Nigeria in partnership with COVAX.
ALSO yesterday, Africa Centres for Disease Control flayed Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, for ‘letting the continent down’ by pulling out of talks to supply jabs, thus creating distrust that has affected demand.
The centre’s head, John Nkengasong, denounced recent comments from Serum that uptake of its COVID-19 shots had slowed because of low demand from Africa and vaccine hesitancy, accusing the Indian firm of acting unprofessionally.
Serum, however, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Nkengasong said Serum had engaged in discussions last year with the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), and that at one point, he had believed a deal was very close, but then Serum abruptly ended the talks.
“Serum just decided to act in a very unprofessional manner and stop communicating with AVATT team, so that created a situation where we found ourselves extremely unhappy … and then engaged with Johnson & Johnson,” he said.
African countries had agreed to buy 400 million doses of COVID vaccines from J&J, abandoning efforts with Serum, he said.
Then, earlier in 2021, came India’s decision to ban vaccine exports as domestic infections soared, which had created further distrust abroad, and that explained the lack of demand from Africa for Serum’s vaccines, Nkengasong said.
“If now Serum is shipping vaccines to COVAX, I don’t know the mechanics of what volumes they are shipping to COVAX, but it will not surprise me that countries are now looking at that (thinking) ‘OK, we needed you and you were not there for us’,” he said.
Global vaccine-sharing network COVAX is still seeing strong demand for Serum’s AstraZeneca shot, one of its backers GAVI said on Thursday, following comments from Serum that uptake had slowed.
Nkengasong described as “condescending” comments by Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive of Serum, in a recent interview with British newspaper The Times about low demand from Africa.
“It’s a combination of vaccine hesitancy and nations not coming forward and placing orders in the way in which they claim they would, particularly the African nations,” Poonawalla was quoted as saying. “I’m happy to say that on record and I hope they read it because maybe they’ll get activated and do something about it.”
Although vaccine supplies have started increasing to Africa, where just 7.5% of its more than 1 billion people are fully vaccinated, many African nations are finding they do not have the capacity to manage the shots.