Scientists mystified, suspicious, as Africa dodges COVID disaster


HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – This week, in a bustling market in a poor township outside Harare, Nyasha Ndou kept her mask in her pocket, while hundreds of other people, mostly unmasked , jostled to buy and sell fruits and vegetables displayed on wooden tables and plastic sheets. Like much of Zimbabwe, here the coronavirus is quickly being relegated to the past, as political rallies, concerts and home rallies are back.

“COVID-19 is gone, when was the last time you heard of someone who has died from COVID-19? »Says Ndou. “The mask serves to protect my pocket,” he said. “The police demand bribes, so I lose money if I don’t go with a mask. Earlier this week, Zimbabwe recorded just 33 new cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths, in line with a recent drop in the disease across the continent, where data from the World Health Organization shows that infections have been declining since July.

When the coronavirus first emerged last year, health officials feared the pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions of people. While it is still unclear what the ultimate toll of COVID-19 will be, this catastrophic scenario has yet to materialize in Zimbabwe or much of the continent.

Scientists stress that it is extremely difficult to get accurate COVID-19 data, especially in African countries with uneven surveillance, and warn that the downward trends in coronaviruses could easily be reversed.

But there is something “mysterious” going on in Africa that is puzzling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, president of global health at Columbia University. “Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the United States, but somehow they seem to be doing better,” he said. she declared.

Less than 6% of Africans are vaccinated. For months, the WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.

Some researchers claim that the continent’s younger population – the average age is 20 compared to around 43 in Western Europe – in addition to their lower urbanization rates and tendency to spend time in the city. outside, may have spared him the most deadly effects of the virus so far. Several studies seek to know if there could be other explanations, in particular genetic reasons or an infection passed by parasitic diseases.

Researchers working in Uganda said on Friday they found that COVID-19 patients with high rates of malaria exposure were less likely to have severe illness or die than people with a little history of the disease. .

“We went into this project believing that we would see a higher rate of negative results in people with a history of malaria infections, as this has been observed in patients co-infected with malaria and Ebola, ”said Jane Achan, senior research advisor at the Malaria Consortium and co-author of the study. “In fact, we were quite surprised to see the opposite – that malaria could have a protective effect. “

Achan said this could suggest that a past infection with malaria could “dampen” the tendency of people’s immune systems to run wild when infected with COVID-19. The research was presented Friday at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Genomics at Redeemer University in Nigeria, said authorities were used to curbing epidemics even without vaccines and credited the vast networks of community health workers .

“It’s not always about how much money you have or how sophisticated your hospitals are,” he said.

Devi Sridhar, president of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said African leaders have not been given the credit they deserve for acting quickly, citing Mali’s decision to close its borders even before the arrival of COVID-19.

“I think there is a different cultural approach in Africa, where these countries have approached COVID with a sense of humility because they have experienced things like Ebola, polio and malaria,” Sridhar said.

In recent months, the coronavirus has struck South Africa and is believed to have killed more than 89,000 people there, by far the highest number of deaths on the continent. But for now, African authorities, while acknowledging that there could be gaps, are not reporting a huge number of unexpected deaths that could be linked to COVID. WHO data shows that deaths in Africa represent only 3% of the global total. In comparison, deaths in the Americas and Europe account for 46% and 29%.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the government has so far recorded nearly 3,000 deaths among its 200 million people. The United States has many deaths every two or three days.

The small number of Nigerians like Opemipo Are, 23 in Abuja, feels relieved. “They said there would be dead bodies in the streets and all that, but nothing like that happened,” she said.

Nigerian authorities on Friday launched a campaign to dramatically expand the West African nation’s coronavirus vaccination. Authorities aim to vaccinate half the population by February, a goal they say will help them achieve herd immunity.

Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups, suggested Africa might not even need as many vaccines as the West. It’s an idea which, while controversial, he says, is being seriously discussed among African scientists – and is reminiscent of the proposal made by British officials last March to let COVID-19 freely infect the population to boost immunity.

This does not mean, however, that vaccines are not needed in Africa.

“We need to vaccinate everything to prepare for the next wave,” said Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist at the South African University of KwaZulu-Natal, who previously advised the South African government on COVID-19. “Looking at what’s going on in Europe, the likelihood of more cases spreading here is very high. “

The impact of the coronavirus has also been relatively attenuated beyond Africa in poor countries like Afghanistan, where experts have predicted that outbreaks in the midst of an ongoing conflict will prove disastrous.

Hashmat Arifi, a 23-year-old student in Kabul, said he had not seen anyone wearing a mask for months, including at a recent wedding he attended alongside hundreds of guests. In its university courses, more than 20 students regularly sit unmasked in tight quarters.

“I haven’t seen any cases of corona lately,” Arifi said. Afghanistan has so far recorded around 7,200 deaths among its 39 million people, although little testing has been done in the midst of the conflict and the actual number of cases and deaths is unknown.

Back in Zimbabwe, doctors were grateful for the respite from COVID-19 – but feared it was only temporary.

“People have to be very vigilant,” warned Dr Johannes Marisa, president of the Zimbabwe Association of Private Physicians and Dentists. He fears another wave of coronavirus will hit Zimbabwe next month. “Complacency is what will destroy us because we might be caught off guard. “

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