Experts warn Africans to brace for more COVID-19 variants

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: Experts have warned that Africa will continue seeing a cycle of new COVID-19 variants if more people are not vaccinated.

Speaking at a transnational science café on Friday attended by journalists from East and Southern Africa, Dr. Lul Riek a Public Health expert based at the Africa CDC said the continent needs to have reached between 60 and 70% of the population by end of 2022 if hard immunity is to be achieved.

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But he says with just 7.6% of the population vaccinated so far, achieving this target is hard yet other continents have shown it’s possible to vaccinate a lot of people in a short time.

While generally, the low vaccination numbers have been tagged by several entities including the World Health Organization (WHO) to vaccine hesitancy, Riek says they haven’t found that a problem in Africa. He says that if more vaccines are availed to people even in the hard to reach areas, numbers would quickly pick up.

He added that it’s unnecessary for governments to adopt draconian ways to push people to vaccinate by making it mandatory but rather showing them why they really need to take their jabs.

Dr. Talkmore Maruta, a Senior Biosafety and Biosecurity officer in the continental health body said with access problems associated with countries hoarding and reserving booster doses, they have embarked on engaging countries in the region to start local manufacturing and already some of the vaccines are being received now are manufactured locally for instance in South Africa.

“There are several channels available to access vaccines through regional negotiations. The challenge has been the supply chains that have been under pressure to meet demands even where governments have their resources to purchase”, he said.

With the current Omicron variant being seen to affect children as well, Maruta says countries should start thinking about vaccinating younger children as more and more evidence is pointing towards the need to get children vaccinated which will definitely add to the challenge of accessing more doses.

Meanwhile, at the WHO, Dr. Richard Mihigo, the Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator for the Regional Office for Africa says the Omicron variant is reaching more countries in Africa and weekly COVID-19 cases in the continent surged by 93% this week.

Africa recorded more than 107 000 cases in the week ending on 5 December, up from around 55 000. Five countries accounted for 86% of the cases reported over the past week and all the sub-regions in the continent – up from one the previous week – reported increases in new cases. Southern Africa recorded the highest increase with a 140% hike mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.

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