The more-transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus is surging across Africa, the continent with the least vaccines and weakest healthcare systems, feeding fears among epidemiologists and political leaders of a public-health disaster that could echo the tragedy that unfolded in India in the spring.
Across Africa, at least 20 countries are experiencing sharp increases in infections that have already surpassed or are projected to top earlier peaks, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is frightening to see what is going on across the continent,” said John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa CDC. “This is the first time that we are beginning to see countries report that their health systems are completely overwhelmed.”
In South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized economy and the country with the most sophisticated genome-sequencing program, Delta now appears to be responsible for nearly three-quarters of infections, a tripling compared with the start of June, according to data from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform.
While full vaccination appears to offer high levels of protection against Delta, experts in South Africa warned over the weekend that antibodies triggered by infection from an earlier strain in laboratory experiments appeared less able to fend off the new variant.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that protection from previous infection from the Beta variant that was until recently dominant in South Africa is good enough to keep symptoms mild in most cases, said Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa.