By Vanessa Akoth

COVID-19 cases in Africa have in the past week declined by 20%, the sharpest seven day decline in two months, yet still higher than the weekly cases recorded at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic.

According to the latest data released by World Health Organization, the rate of deceleration is still slower than the previous waves owing to the impact of more transmissible variants. However, the continent has recorded more than 165,000 new COVID-19 cases in the week ending 5 September.

“While COVID-19 cases have declined appreciably, the downward trend is frustratingly slow due to the lingering effects of the more infectious Delta variant,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.

“We are spearheading critical work and supporting countries in scaling up pathogen surveillance through genome sequencing to detect and respond effectively to COVID-19 variants.”

Delta variant that partly fuelled the third wave has been in several countries that experienced the COVID-19 surge. Genome sequencing data produced from more than 4000 cases established a 70% detection of Delta Variant from Malawi, Botswana and South Africa, and more than 90% from Zimbabwe.

In collaboration with the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, WHO is at the forefront of the efforts to set up the Regional Centre of Excellence for Genomic Surveillance and Bioinformatics in Cape Town. The centre will support 14 countries before being scaling up to include more countries.

Last year, WHO and partners established a COVID-19 sequencing laboratory network in Africa which has to date produced nearly 40 000 sequencing data.

“The continent lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to sequencing, with only 1% of over 3 million COVID-19 sequences conducted worldwide occurring in Africa,” said Dr Moeti.

“The third wave has shown us how variants can hijack the efforts to tame the pandemic. Countries must step up surveillance because without genomic information, variants can spread undetected. You can’t fix what you don’t measure.”

WHO has also recently provided financial support to countries including Eswatini, Sao Tome and Principe and Senegal to reinforce genomic surveillance. To date, the dominant Delta variant has been detected in 31 African countries, while the Alpha and Beta variants have respectively been identified in 44 and 39 countries.

As Africa’s third COVID-19 pandemic wave eases off, vaccine shipments to the continent continue to grow, with around 5.5 million doses received through COVAX in the first week of September.

However, only around 3% of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated.

“To ultimately tip the scales against this pandemic, our best efforts to reduce transmission through public health measures must be met by a significant step-up in vaccine supplies and vaccinations,” Dr Moeti said.