A new, more contagious variant of the novel coronavirus discovered in South Africa has spread to four other African countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), adding to fears that the mutant strain is spreading across the continent.
South Africa, Botswana, Ghana and Zambia have now all reported cases of the new strain, it was revealed during a press conference on Thursday.
The new variant, known as 501.V2, is largely responsible for a second wave in South Africa which has seen daily cases rise to a new record of almost 22,000.
The strain is thought to affect young people more easily.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, tapped by President Joe Biden to be the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday that at least one new strain of the virus has shown resistance to antibodies, but assured that it would not resist global vaccines.
“It may well be that the virus is circulating in the sub-region and even further along,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.
The news comes as Africa’s fatality rate rose to 2.5%, a rate higher than the global average of 2.2% for the first time since the pandemic began.
More than 20 African countries now have a death rate of over 3% including Egypt, the DRC and Sudan.
Questions also remain over the rollout of vaccines in Africa which has experienced significant delays compared to more developed nations.
Thabani Maphosa, managing director of country programmes for GAVI, a public-private partnership to increase global vaccinations, said that the COVAX initiative, set up to provide Covid-19 vaccines to poorer countries, hopes to provide two billion vaccinations this year.
The initiative, which is co-led by GAVI and the WHO, is aiming to deliver 1.2bn doses to lower middle-income countries and to vaccinate 20% of Africa’s population. It has raised $6bn so far to secure affordable vaccines for poorer countries, Maphosa adds.
However, experts have called into question the ability of the continent’s weak healthcare systems and fragile infrastructure to store and distribute the vaccines once they have been procured.
“Acquiring vaccines is not enough” said Moeti.
“We have assessed that Africa is at a 42% preparedness level to deliver the vaccine. We still have quite a lot to do to reach the benchmark of 80%.”
Fears have also been raised about Africa’s cold-chain storage and its ability to keep certain vaccine candidates stable.
While the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had initially been discounted for Africa as it needs to be stored at -70°C, some countries are beginning to place orders.
Ivory Coast announced on Thursday that it would receive 100,000 doses by mid-February.
“It is important that we take every opportunity to use every vaccine where it is feasible and where that vaccine is available,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.