Opening statement, COVID-19 Press Conference, 14 January 2021

Submitted by on Sun, 17/01/2021 - 06:11

Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti

Good morning and Happy New Year to all our colleagues from the press for joining us this morning.  Bonjour. Bonne Annee. Bienvenue a tout le monde. Thank you for participating in our first COVID-19 press briefing in the year 2021.

I am very pleased to be joined in this briefing by two colleagues, friends, and leaders, a brother and sister who are working very hard on COVID-19 in Africa. First,  Professor Francisca Mutapi of the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, who is the  Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. A warm welcome and Happy New Year to both of you.

While in 2020, Africa was spared much of the worst of COVID-19 with relatively fewer infections, cases and deaths compared to other regions of the world, we start the new year facing new threats from the virus.

With an average daily new case count of more than 25 000 in the last 14 days, Africa is experiencing a second wave which is higher than the peak experienced last July. We know that these numbers are likely to grow as the impact of holiday season travel and get-togethers become evident. The continent has now topped 3 million cases with over 72 000 lives sadly lost.

This is a stark reminder that the virus is relentless, that it still presents a manifest threat, and that our war is far from won.

In addition, we are now confronted with new variants of the virus. This is not surprising as the more the virus spreads the higher the likelihood of mutations.  However, some of those changes are concerning.

Preliminary analysis finds the new variant circulating in South Africa to be more transmissible and it appears to be driving the surge in new infections in the country and in the sub-region. Genomic sequencing has found the 501Y.V2 variant present in three other countries - Botswana, the Gambia and Zambia. And frankly, we think that it could be present in more countries than that.

Deeper investigations are underway to fully understand the epidemiological implications but at present there are no indications the new variant increases the severity of disease. There is also no conclusive evidence that it will lessen the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

However, a virus that can spread more easily will, of course put further strain on hospitals and health workers who are in many cases already over-worked and overstretched.

There is still much to learn, and you will hear more from Dr Chikwe about research on another new variant detected in Nigeria.

It is important for countries to improve routine sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 viruses on the African continent to better to monitor the emergence of variants and their subsequent spread across countries.

When we know how the virus has changed and fully understand the epidemiological and pathological significance of that change, we can adjust our response accordingly.

WHO together with the Africa CDC has supported countries to step up genome sequencing through a network of specialized laboratories. We are also helping in shipping samples, providing laboratory supplies as well as technical guidance and mobilizing funds.

WHO is also working with a group of international scientists to coordinate research efforts and Professor Mutapi will tell us a about new analysis of genome sequencing conducted in Africa.

While we continue to increase our knowledge of COVID-19 we do know how to stop the new and old variants of the virus.

We must persist with the proven public health measures that helped to slow down the spread of the virus during the first wave including masks and physical distancing.

Finally, a top priority is ensuring Africans access COVID-19 vaccines. It is unfortunate that so far, vaccine distribution has been inequitable but this is a massive undertaking and it takes time. The COVAX facility which is facilitated by Gavi, WHO and CEPI aims to provide around 600 million doses for Africa we estimate in 2021. We expect the first doses to arrive by March with a larger rollout by June.

However, COVAX can only cover twenty percent of the African population. So, it is really wonderful to see the African Union’s efforts to secure a provisional 270 million doses by the end of 2021 are achieving success. Together, we will deliver nearly 900 million doses for this year. We know that still, more is needed.

WHO has developed the guidance for national deployment plans and trained all countries in key aspects of COVID vaccine development. Our monitoring shows that there is still a lot to do in terms of this preparedness and I’d just like to emphasize that getting the vaccine doses is a very important step; getting the vaccine into people’s arms is equally important and demands a lot of work both from countries, ourselves and from partners.

Thank you all for joining us and I look forward to our conversation today. Thank you.