Concerns mount that a new COVID-19 variant could be spreading in Africa

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An elderly woman covers her face with a makeshift mask in Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by: Mike Hutchings / Reuters

African health officials are growing more concerned about the possible regional spread of a variant of the coronavirus known as 501.v2, which was first discovered in South Africa in November and has sparked travel bans and border closures.

Authorities say the variant appears to be spreading at a faster rate and could put an increased burden on African health systems, amid fears that it has spread further than currently known. 

Speaking at a press briefing, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, warned that “a virus that can spread more easily will of course put more strain on hospitals and health workers who are in many cases already overworked and overstretched.”

Thus far, Africa has been spared the worst effects of the pandemic with the continent recording a relatively low number of cases, possibly due to social and environmental factors, as well as lower fatality rates than other parts of the world. However the latest situation report from WHO shows that cases in the region have been increasing since mid-September, with steeper increases observed since late November.

The man behind Africa's COVID-19 response

Four years ago, Cameroonian virologist John Nkengasong moved to Ethiopia from the U.S. to turn what was then only a vision into what is now the leading institution working to manage the continent's pandemic response: the Africa CDC.

Researchers from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies have also warned that the emergence of new strains of the virus may “pose new dangers in countries where the combination of a more limited death toll [from the first wave] but significant economic losses may make containment difficult.”

Last week, the United Kingdom — one of several countries to have banned travel from South Africa after the discovery of the variant — extended the ban across the southern Africa region. On Monday the South African government also closed all open land ports of entry, after a lockdown order sparked high levels of congestion at the border with Zimbabwe and raised fears of a super-spreader event.

Announcing the border closures, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that research showed the massive increase of infections in South Africa has been largely driven by the new variant. The number of daily cases breached the 20,000 mark in the past week, surpassing the first wave peak of nearly 14,000 cases recorded in July. Last week, a total of 125,287 new cases were recorded, a 27% increase from the week before.

But early reports from other African countries suggest 501.v2 may already have spread beyond southern Africa.

So far, three other countries — Zambia, Botswana, and Gambia — have reported variants of the original virus that make it more contagious. 

Gambia’s Ministry Of Health confirmed that the country had recorded cases of a variant strain that was first detected in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Malebogo Kebabonye, director of health services at the Ministry of Health and Wellness in Botswana, said the discovery was prompted by the emergence of an unusual COVID-19 spread pattern in the Maun area, a popular tourist destination in the north. The country has not yet established the full extent of the spread but is expecting a potential increase in new cases as a result.

“This therefore may put unnecessary pressure on the health system and when this happens we know that then we may end up losing lives,” she said.

Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a virologist for WHO’s Regional Office for Africa, said reports from Gambia in West Africa are an indication that variants could be spreading further throughout the continent.

“If other countries which are outside the southern part are starting to see this, that is an indication that nobody is safe as far as this variant is concerned,” she said.

She added that 24 African countries are currently sharing their sequencing data in the global gene bank.

“Initial data received by the WHO shows that this particular variant seems to be spreading faster than the original COVID-19 and as such a lot of precautions need to be taken by everybody,” she said.

Moeti agreed that the variant “could be present in more countries” and said that while Africa fared relatively well last year compared to other regions, the new threats posed by the more transmissible variant and the second wave are concerning.

Update, Jan. 25, 2021: This article has been updated with more details about the strain of the virus found in Gambia. 

About the author

  • Rumbi Chakamba

    Rumbi Chakamba is an Associate Editor at Devex based in Botswana, who has worked with regional and international publications including News Deeply, The Zambezian, Outriders Network, and Global Sisters Report. She holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of South Africa.