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Africa slammed by third wave as vaccinations languish under 2%

China, Russia and others step up to provide assistance

A Kenyan tour guide is vaccinated: The most recent rise in infections follows the first wave in the summer of 2020 and the second wave around the beginning of this year.   © Reuters

CAIRO/ISTANBUL -- A third wave of coronavirus cases has hit Africa as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread, all at a time when less than 2% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

"Many countries are still at peak risk, and Africa's unprecedented third wave surged up faster and higher than ever before," said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, in a virtual news conference Thursday.

Cumulative confirmed cases reached 6 million in mid-July, jumping from 5 million in a month. By comparison, the increase to 5 million from 4 million took three months. The WHO sees spikes in such countries as Algeria, Senegal and Rwanda.

While the easing of lockdowns in cities and insufficient public health measures are partly to blame, the biggest factor is the delay in vaccinations. Many African countries lack the funds to purchase the vaccines that they need, relying on the COVAX global vaccine-sharing scheme. But supplies of AstraZeneca vaccines produced by an Indian company via the program have been delayed.

China and Russia have stepped up to expand their influence. Egypt has begun manufacturing vaccines developed by Sinovac Biotech. Morocco plans to produce vaccines by teaming up with Sinopharm, while Algeria intends to manufacture Russia's Sputnik V vaccine starting in September.

The U.S. and Europe have begun providing support for local vaccine production. The World Bank's International Finance Corp. and aid organizations in France, Germany and the U.S. said in late June that they would support contract manufacturing of vaccines by providing 600 million euros ($700 million) to South African drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare.

The European Commission said this month that Senegal will construct a vaccine plant with the help of an international coalition of partners.

Just 1.5% of people in Africa have finished receiving their shots, according to U.K.-based Our World in Data. About 61 million doses have been administered -- fewer than in Japan, whose population is around 10% of Africa's. Even in regional industrial power South Africa, only around 8% have received at least one shot, and those who have been fully vaccinated are in the 3% range.

Africa recently logged about 40,000 new cases a day -- roughly as many per capita as Japan. But with fewer PCR tests being conducted on the continent, the African tally is thought to miss many cases. And weak medical infrastructure means that even a small increase can overwhelm hospitals.

The rapid climb follows the first wave in the summer of 2020 and the second wave around the start of this year. Deaths from COVID-19 have reached about 160,000 in Africa, growing by 20,000 in a month.

Restrictions on people's movements hurt economies and can lead to unrest. In South Africa, protests against the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma led to riots that included looting and arson targeting stores. More than 100 vaccination centers and oil refineries were forced to shut down, and major roads and ports were also impacted.

Discarded shots and vaccine hesitancy are persistent issues in Africa. Malawi moved to destroy about 20,000 expired doses in May. Tanzania took until June to request vaccines from COVAX, partly because its previous president had denied the existence of COVID-19. And in Uganda, more than 800 people were found to have received fake shots that were likely water.

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