By Naomi Kitur

Africa currently accounts for 46% of the nearly 1000 Omicron cases reported globally according to Dr. Richard Mihigo, Coordinator, Immunization and Vaccines Development (IVD) Programme, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa.

The Omicron variant has now reached around 60 countries worldwide, 10 of which are in Africa.

Over the past week, new cases in Africa have risen by 93% compared with the week before. The southern Africa region has recorded the highest increase with a weekly case rise of 140% mainly due to an upsurge in South Africa, according to WHO.

At a virtual press briefing hosted by WHO Africa Regional Office, Dr. Mihigo stated that researchers are working round the clock to determine whether Omicron, the new variant, is more contagious and whether it causes severe illness or if it has any impact on vaccines and treatments.

‘’There is an assumption that the current vaccines may not protect people against Omicron. But so far there is no conclusive evidence that vaccines are ineffective against this new variant. Vaccines have protected people from severe disease and hospitalization due to the other variants of concern, and there has been no need to modify these vaccines,’’ he explained.

He further added that emerging data from South Africa suggests that Omicron may cause less severe illness, which is reassuring.

Data which looked at hospitalizations across the country between 14 November and 4 December found that ICU occupancy was only 6.3 % – which is very low compared with the same period when South Africa was facing the peak linked to the Delta variant in July.

‘’This however, is still a preliminary analysis and we will need at least another two to three weeks to determine Omicron’s full effects,’’ said Dr Mihigo.

‘’As countries grapple with the new variant and a rise in cases, Africans remain largely unvaccinated against COVID-19. Only 8% of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated. More than 80% of Africans are yet to receive a single dose.”

He added: “With millions still unvaccinated in this pandemic, we are giving the virus an easy path to spread, mutate and pose dangerous challenges.’’

According to WHO Africa, as the year ends, only six of Africa’s 54 countries have reached the global target of vaccinating 40% of their population. Millions of people in this region are without protection against COVID-19, which is not only risky but also unacceptable.

Dr. Mihigo stated that it is encouraging, however, that COVID-19 vaccine supply has continued to pick up, with 20 million vaccines arriving in Africa on a weekly basis.

‘’The continent has now received a total of 372 million vaccines, of which 248 million, or 67%, have been administered,’’ he explained.

WHO is following up with countries, monitoring developments in their vaccine rollout and supporting them to continue addressing bottlenecks on an ongoing basis.

‘’Our job now is to support African countries step up their vaccine absorption, in the shortest amount of time possible. We must do whatever it takes to get countries to address hold-ups in their COVID-19 vaccine rollouts,” he said.

‘’We hope that these actions will count and lead to a more equitable world where people can be with their families and loved ones during our festive seasons, which should be times of generosity of spirit and unity.”