Africa reported 1 million new COVID-19 cases in the past month — the fastest increase in cases since the pandemic began and one driven largely by the Delta variant.
Deaths have also spiked, rising by 40% in five weeks to more than 155,500 as of mid-July. Several studies in Africa suggest the actual COVID-19 death count is significantly higher than the official report.
“As this surge sweeps across Africa, we are witnessing the brutal cost in lives lost,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, director of the World Health Organization’s Africa regional office, said during a recent news conference.
The Delta variant has appeared in 21 countries. The five reporting the highest number of new cases are South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe. They account for 64% of Delta variant cases on the continent. South Africa and Zambia are running out of intensive-care beds.
The Delta spike is driving a rapid rise in hospitalizations, crippling health systems that were already struggling to provide essential services to their communities. Hospitals have about one-third of the medical oxygen they need, Moeti said.
Boosting oxygen supplies is a priority for the WHO, she said.
She noted the continent took three months to go from 4 million cases to 5 million. As of mid-July, the case count was 6.1 million, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moeti described the new number as “a grim milestone.”
Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said that access to vaccines remains the biggest challenge to breaking the latest COVID-19 wave. Currently just over 1% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated. Many others are partially vaccinated after receiving one dose of a two-dose vaccine.
Africa’s vaccine rollout has stagnated at about 3 million doses a week — a number that needs to increase, Moeti said.
To boost Africa’s vaccine supply, in August South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare is expected to begin releasing the first of 400 million locally made doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The vaccine will be distributed by the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team to countries across the continent.
The J&J vaccine has proven effective against the Delta variant, as have two-shot vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca.
People who receive the J&J vaccine are fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the shot. In the case of two-dose vaccines, full vaccination takes effect two weeks after the second dose. Until the vaccines take full effect, people are still a risk from the virus that causes COVID-19.
Every new case of COVID-19 is a new opportunity for the virus to mutate into a potentially deadly new variant. With vaccines still in limited supply, Africa’s public health officials continue to emphasize the need for people to protect themselves in other ways.
However, misinformation continues to plague public health efforts to get people to take precautions, meaning people arrive at hospitals with severe cases of COVID-19 infection, according to Namibian physician Ismael Katjitae.
The Africa CDC and mobile telephone provider MTN recently announced the “one more push” marketing campaign to urge unvaccinated people to continue to use masks, wash hands, and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
MTN CEO Ralph Mupita said the new campaign was driven by the difficulty Africa has had acquiring vaccines.
“We felt we needed to go back to the basics,” Mupita said. “One of those is mask wearing.”