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‘Assume the worst’: coronavirus variants in Africa worry scientists

Johannesburg: The proliferation of COVID-19 variants in Africa has alarmed a group of 137 international scientific organisations, which has published a study warning that the continent’s low vaccination rate could foster vaccine-evading mutations that complicate attempts to end the pandemic.

A study of genomes from 33 African nations and two “overseas territories,” published in the journal Science, tracks the evolution of the pandemic across the continent and the emergence of a number of so-called variants of concern and variants of interest. One of those, Beta, spread around the globe earlier this year and rendered some vaccines partially ineffective.

The “slow rollout of vaccines in most African countries creates an environment in which the virus can replicate and evolve,” the organisations said. “This will almost certainly produce additional [variants of concern], any of which could derail the global fight against COVID-19.”

A nurse checks a COVID patient in the intensive care unit in Machakos, Kenya.

A nurse checks a COVID patient in the intensive care unit in Machakos, Kenya. Credit:Bloomberg

While more than half of the population of the US and over 60 per cent of people living in the European Union are fully vaccinated, just 3.2 per cent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been fully dosed. That’s resulted in a severe third wave of infections in many countries and the emergence of a new variant in South Africa known as C.1.2.

The study showed that COVID-19 was introduced to most African nations from Europe, and in turn the continent has exported the variants it spawned back to European countries. Different strains of the virus spread around the continent mainly from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya – three of the African countries with the strongest links to the wider world.

The Beta variant, identified in South Africa in December, quickly raced as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo, most likely along the road and rail routes that connect the country’s ports with the sub-continent, the study said.

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The research is the first major output by Africa’s leading scientists in an effort to increase the continent’s ability to produce and analyse genomic data. Two variants in West Africa and East Africa, known as B.1.525 and A.23.1, need to be contained, it said.

“There is strong evidence that both of these VOIs [variants of interest] are rising in frequency in the regions where they have been detected, which suggests that they may possess higher fitness than other variants,” the scientists said. “Although more focused research on the biological properties of these VOIs is needed to confirm whether they should be considered VOCs, it would be prudent to assume the worst.”

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