ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For the seventh week in a row, COVID-19 cases have been rising across Africa at an explosive rate. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports on what's driving this wave.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Every week, the World Health Organization's director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti has been giving an update on the coronavirus' impact on the continent. These press conferences are often grim, but this week it reached a whole new level.
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MATHIDISO MOETI: Africa has just marked its worst pandemic week ever. There were more than 251,000 cases.
AIZENMAN: That's a 20% jump over last week, and it's way above what had been Africa's record peak last January. What's more, says Moeti, with this wave...
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MOETI: The worst is yet to come. To end this is still going to be several weeks away.
AIZENMAN: Sixteen African countries are seeing a surge of cases. That said, right now the vast majority of Africa's new cases are in one country - South Africa. Professor Tulio de Oliveira is a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal there. He directs a team that's been doing genetic sequencing to see which strains of the coronavirus are circulating. He says it's now clear that what's driving South Africa's surge is the delta variant that was first identified in India.
TULIO DE OLIVEIRA: There's very, very, very fast growth OF prevalence of delta, now dominating around 80% of the recent genomes in South Africa.
AIZENMAN: The variant appears to be much more transmissible than previous ones. Oliveira says that means things could get bad in a lot of other African countries very quickly. When it comes to the delta variant, he says...
DE OLIVEIRA: What we really worry at the moment is that it has to begin to dominate not only South Africa but all of the African infections.
AIZENMAN: He says that while data collection across much of Africa is admittedly still limited, about 75% of the recent samples taken continentwide are the delta variant.
DE OLIVEIRA: Delta has entered all regions of the continent. We are talking about southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa.
AIZENMAN: And Central Africa. Still, says Oliveira, the good news is the evidence suggests vaccines are effective against the delta variant. The trouble - right now less than 2% of Africans are fully vaccinated. Aurelia Nguyen is a top official of the COVAX Facility, an international effort co-led by the World Health Organization to distribute vaccines more equitably among nations.
AURELIA NGUYEN: So we're not happy with this progress. It is some progress but not enough.
AIZENMAN: She notes that vaccine shipments to Africa ground to a halt this spring due to supply issues. And though COVAX and some countries have started sending additional doses, the pace is still very slow, and she says this should concern people everywhere in the world.
NGUYEN: The longer this virus circulates, the more likely it is that the highly contagious variants we're seeing will continue and others will emerge.
AIZENMAN: So the need to get more vaccines to Africa, she says, has never been more urgent.
Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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