Africa’s Covid-19 death rate moves above global level

Head of Africa CDC, John Nkengasong

Africa’s Coronavirus case fatality rate has risen alarmingly to 2.5%, higher than the global level of 2.2%, the head of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) John Nkengasong said on Thursday.

Earlier in the pandemic, Africa’s rate had been below the global average, and Nkengasong said “The case fatality rate is beginning to be very worrying and concerning for all of us”, without giving a reason for the increase.

Situation in Africa as of January 22

The number of African nations with a rate of deaths-per-cases higher than the global average is growing, he said, adding that there are 21 countries on the continent with a rate above 3%, including Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.

As of Friday, January 22, confirmed COVID-19 cases from 55 African countries reached 3,364,291 with reported deaths reaching 82,789 while 2,809,930 people have recovered.

South Africa has the most reported cases — 1,380,807 with 39,501 as related deaths. Other most-affected countries are Morocco (463,706), Tunisia (190,884), Egypt (158,963), Ethiopia (159,715), and Nigeria (116,655).

Malawi situation

The initially lower case fatality level in Africa may have been due to lower testing rates and a youthful population, experts said in 2020.

Despite Nkengasong’s concern, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Africa head Matshidiso Moeti told an online news conference that Africa’s case fatality rate is not dramatically worse than other regions.

She said higher rates are probably due to the challenges African countries most severely affected by the second wave — notably South Africa, where a more infectious variant has been detected — were facing in providing care for infected people.

Coronavirus alert

Over the past week, cases around the continent decreased by nearly 7% compared to the previous week, while deaths increased 10%, according to Africa CDC data.

With a population of more than 1.3 billion, Africa has recorded 81,000 COVID-19 related deaths, representing 4% of fatalities globally, Nkengasong said. 

Africa has recorded 3.3 million infections in total and the continent reported 207,000 new cases in the past week, with South Africa alone reporting 100,000 of those, Nkengasong said.

Meanwhile, UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told Sky News that Coronavirus variants were a “real issue of concern” and the vaccines being rolled out in the UK and around the world may be less effective against the new South Africa variant.

Sir Patrick Vallance

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, also found the South Africa variant, known as 501Y.V2, contains mutations that may be resistant to immunity from previous coronavirus infection.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, who was not involved in the research, said: “This preprint suggests that individuals might be able to get infected with a variant of Sars-Cov-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) even if they have previously had COVID-19.

“It also shows we urgently need to find out if we could see infection with this variant post-vaccination.”

Coronavirus alert

Asked about variants such as 501Y.V2, ir Patrick Vallance said laboratory studies suggested “this may be a virus that can escape some of the immune effects of antibodies”, but “we don’t know to what degree”.

“I would just caution the laboratory studies are not perfect predictors of what happens in the clinic so we need to get clinical data as soon as we can.”

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said regulators would be able to swiftly approve new vaccine variants to cope with mutations.

As part of the study, researchers analysed the impact of specific mutations in the spike gene of the South Africa variant.

They found that 501Y.V2 showed “complete escape” from monoclonal antibodies, or man-made proteins that act like human antibodies in the immune system.

Coronavirus alert

Similar findings were also observed in samples containing convalescent plasma, which is the antibody-rich plasma of someone who has recovered from coronavirus.

“These data highlight the prospect of reinfection with antigenically distinct variants and may foreshadow reduced efficacy of current spike-based vaccines,” the study authors wrote.

Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute Professor James Naismith described the findings as “not good news but not unexpected”, adding “we must not panic”.

Coronavirus alert