Africa’s COVID infections 97 times larger than reported cases – WHO

Africa’s COVID-19 infections are 97 times larger than reported confirmed cases, a World Health Organisation (WHO) study finds.

The study also shows that 65 percent of Africans (more than two-thirds) have been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. It found that exposure to the virus surged from 3 percent in June of 2020 to 65 percent by September 2021, or 800 million infections compared with 8.2 million cases reported at that time.

The study showed that exposure to the virus rose sharply following the emergence of the Beta and the Delta variants.

The study synthesised 151 studies published on seroprevalence in Africa between January 2020 and December 2021. However, seroprevalence varied widely within and across countries in Africa – higher in more dense urban areas than in less populated rural areas – and between age groups, with children aged 0-9 years having fewer infections compared with adults.

As of 6 April 2022, there were 11.5 million confirmed cases and more than 252 000 deaths reported on the continent. It is likely that the number of actual exposure to the virus has increased even more since September 2021.

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“This analysis shows that current reported COVID-19 confirmed cases are only a fraction of the actual number of infections on the continent,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa at a virtual briefing on Thursday.

“This under-counting is occurring worldwide and it’s no surprise that the numbers are particularly large in Africa where there are so many cases with no symptoms.” According to WHO, 67 percent of cases in Africa have no symptoms.

Globally, seroprevalence studies have found a significant under-counting of cases occurring across the globe with 45.2 percent on f the world’s population estimated to have been infected with the virus by September 2021. Seroprevalence studies provide data on asymptomatic or under-reported infections that may have been missed by routine diagnostic testing, which in Africa has focused on travellers and people who came to hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms.

“Testing enables us to track the virus in real-time, monitor its evolution and assess the emergence of new variants. Countries must ramp up testing, contact tracing and surveillance so we can stay a step ahead of COVID-19,” Moeti said.

“Despite Africa’s declining infections and high exposure to the virus, we cannot declare victory yet against COVID-19,” Moeti said. “The seroprevalence analysis shows just how much the virus continues to circulate, particularly with new highly transmissible variants. The risks of more lethal variants emerging which overwhelm immunity gained from past infections cannot be brushed aside. Vaccination remains a key weapon in the fight against COVID-19,” she added.