Africa is poised to surpass 4 million COVID-19 infections this week since the continent’s first confirmed case in February 2020. The year-long battle against the virus, which has also claimed over 106 000 lives, is now receiving a crucial boost with the arrival of vaccines through the COVAX Facility – a multi-partner vaccine procurement platform.

Following a second wave which peaked at much higher numbers than Africa’s first surge, new case numbers declined for five weeks, and then plateaued during the past three weeks at around 70 000 cases per week. In the last week, there has been a slight uptick in new cases and an upward trend in 12 countries, including in Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Cameroon.

While deaths reported have dropped by more than 50% over the past 28 days compared with the previous 28 days, the case fatality ratio or the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases is at 3.6% for the past 28 days. This is higher than the global average.

With COVID-19 vaccine deliveries picking up speed, the response to the pandemic is getting a much-awaited boost. More than 14.6 million vaccine doses have been delivered to 22 African countries since 24 February through COVAX, an effort co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with UNICEF.

Ten countries have started vaccination using COVAX-funded vaccines, while another 10 began with vaccines procured outside the COVAX Facility – either bilaterally or through donations. More than 518 000 doses of COVAX-supplied vaccines have been administered.

“Every new COVID-19 vaccine delivery to Africa is a step towards equity and ensuring we get our lives and livelihoods back,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “But doses will remain limited and it’s critical that frontline health workers and other priority groups are at the front of the queue. Health workers deserve protection because without their pivotal role, efforts against the pandemic can go only so far.”

COVID-19 has heavily jolted the health workforce in the African region. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 267 health worker infections have been recorded on average every day, translating to 11 new health worker infections per hour. To date, more than 100 000 health workers have contracted COVID-19 in the African region. Health worker infections account for 3.5% of the total number of cases in the region.

“The pandemic has nearly knocked loose the linchpin of the health systems in many countries,” said Dr Moeti. “We must further protect and equip our health workers to effectively contribute to the efforts to contain COVID-19. Everyone’s wellbeing is at stake without an adequately supported health workforce.”

Africa’s health systems have been severely tested, with doctors, nurses and other health workers stretched to the limit. Several studies have identified lack of personal protective equipment, exposure to COVID-19 patients, work overload, poor infection prevention and control measures as the main risk factors associated with infections in health facilities.

WHO has supported countries to strengthen COVID-19 infection prevention and control, developed and disseminated guidance on health worker infection prevention as well as helped train more than 200 000 health workers. With partner organizations, WHO has also shipped more than 6.4 million rapid diagnosis test kits to African countries to boost COVID-19 testing even in remote areas.

Laboratory diagnosis of the virus in the African region has improved greatly over the past three months, with tests nearly doubling to 243 per 10 000 people up from 149 tests per 10 000 people. More than 27 million tests have been performed in the region to date. Cabo Verde, Botswana, Gabon, Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa have registered the highest testing rates.

Dr Moeti spoke during a virtual press conference today facilitated by APO Group. She was joined by Mr Ferdinant M. Sonyuy, Chair, Secretariat and Central Africa Regional Representative, Africa NCDs Network, Mrs Perpetual Ofori-Ampofo, President of the Ghana Registered Nurses and Midwives Association and Dr Salam Gueye, Director, Regional Emergency Preparedness and Response, WHO Regional Office for Africa. Also on hand to answer questions were Dr Richard Mihigo, Immunization and Vaccine Development Programme Coordinator, WHO Regional Office for Africa, and Dr Nsenga Ngoy, Emergency Response Programme Manager, WHO Regional Office for Africa.