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800 million Africans may have had COVID-19, WHO says

Janice Kew, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

In Africa only one in almost 100 COVID-19 cases may have been detected and about two thirds of the continent’s inhabitants may have been infected with the disease, the World Health Organization said.

The assessment, based on 150 studies published in 2020 and 2021, shows just how underreported the impact of the disease on the world’s poorest continent may have been. Globally one in 16 cases have been picked up on average, according to the WHO.

“In September 2021, rather than the reported 8.2 million cases there were in fact 800 million infections,” Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s director for Africa, said on a conference call on Thursday. “This highlights the need for sustained levels of routine testing and surveillance going forward, if we’re going to be able to stay a step ahead of the pandemic.”

Africa, which initially failed to source adequate vaccinations and now is struggling to administer them, is the world’s least vaccinated continent with just 16% of people on the continent having received a full course of inoculations. Weak health systems and the lack of surveillance has meant that only a quarter of a million deaths have been recorded as a result of the disease. That has stoked speculation, dismissed by most scientists, that Africans are less susceptible to COVID-19.

Anecdotal evidence has shown hospitals from Lagos to Dar es Salaam and Harare being swamped with patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms in the midst of infection waves. Excess deaths, seen as a more accurate measure of COVID-19’s impact, in South Africa alone exceed 300,000.


The proportion of Africans who had been infected with the disease surged from 3% in June 2020 to 65% by September last year, she said.

Social protection measures such as masking and limits on gatherings are being relaxed across the continent and this may lead to more infections, she said.

“Our analysis is clear evidence of the continued significant circulation of the COVID-19 virus among the people on the continent,” Moeti said. “With this comes a heightened risk of more lethal variants that can overwhelm existing immunity. So vaccination remains our best defense.”


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