Africa’s COVID-19 cases drop for first time as fourth wave declines

Weekly COVID-19 cases in Africa have dropped significantly and deaths dipped for the first time since the peak of the fourth pandemic wave propelled by the Omicron variant. The decline nudges the continent past its shortest upsurge yet that lasted 56 days.

Newly reported cases fell by 20 percent in the week to 16 January, while deaths dropped by 8 percent. The decrease in deaths is still small and further monitoring is needed, but if the trend continues the surge in deaths will also be the shortest reported so far during this pandemic.

South Africa—where Omicron was first sequenced, and which has accounted for the bulk of cases and deaths—has recorded a downward trend over the past four weeks. Only North Africa reported an increase in cases over the past week, with a 55 percent spike. Cases fell across the rest of Africa, where, as of 16 January, there were 10.4 million cumulative COVID-19 cases and more than 233 000 deaths.

The Omicron-fuelled pandemic wave has resulted in the lowest cumulative average case fatality ratio—the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases—to date in Africa, standing at 0.68 percent compared with the three previous waves during which the case fatality ratio was above 2.4 percent. The Omicron variant has now been reported in 36 African countries and 169 globally.

“While the acceleration, peak, and decline of this wave have been unmatched, its impact has been moderate, and Africa is emerging with fewer deaths and lower hospitalizations. But the continent has yet to turn the tables on this pandemic,” Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa said at a virtual press conference.

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“So long as the virus continues to circulate, further pandemic waves are inevitable. Africa must not only broaden vaccinations but also gain increased and equitable access to critical COVID-19 therapeutics to save lives and effectively combat this pandemic,” Moeti added.

The African region’s current case fatality ratio remains the highest in the world, although it has been lowered in the last two waves. While improvements have been made in the availability of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients from 0.8 per 100 000 population to 2.0 per 100 000, the numbers are still far from sufficient to meet the demands of the pandemic. In terms of medication, currently, patients with severe forms of the virus are being treated with corticosteroids and medical oxygen. Corticosteroids are largely available and relatively affordable, but the availability of medical oxygen remains a challenge across the continent.

In addition, African countries face major impediments in accessing other COVID-19 treatments due to limited availability and high cost. Last week, WHO recommended two new drugs—a rheumatoid arthritis drug called Baricitinib and a monoclonal antibody called Sotrovimab—raising the number of WHO-approved COVID-19 therapeutics to 11. WHO is reviewing the data on two oral antivirals—Paxlovid from Pfizer and Molnupiravir from Merck—which the manufacturers report show promise in reducing the risk of hospitalization in some patients.

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