Some Countries In Africa Reach Possible Endemic Stage, Study Shows
© AP Photo / Jerome DelayAn Orange Farm, South Africa, resident listens to a nurse after receiving his jab against COVID-19 Friday Dec. 3, 2021 at the Orange Farm multipurpose center. South Africa has accelerated its vaccination campaign a week after the discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus
© AP Photo / Jerome Delay
Top scientists are saying many African countries, including Malawi are reaching a less severe stage of the pandemic amid the rise of the omicron variant. Kondwani Jambo is an immunologist in Malawi who works for the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme. Jambo believes he and his team have found the pandemic’s Holy Grail.
Last year, Kondwani Jambo had started a study to see how many people in his country of Malawi had been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The amount of Malawians who were infected by COVID-19 turned out to be a wide-reaching scale, and much higher than Jambo was anticipating. Many were already infected before the introduction of the omicron variant.
But more importantly, suggests Jambo, this means the Holy Grail for battling this pandemic: the endemic stage when COVID-19 infections aren’t as severe and unpredictable, becoming something more akin to a seasonal bug, like the cold or the flu.
Scientists are saying Malawi is just one of several countries in Africa that have appeared to reach this substantial milestone in battling the pandemic.
It helps to understand that the average age for Malawians is only around 18. Before the wave of the omicron virus Malawi hadn’t been hit too hard by COVID-19, or so it appeared. “Probably less than 10% [of the population], if we look at the number of individuals that have tested positive,” Jambo said. The number of hospitalizations also remained surprisingly low.
However, Jambo remained suspicious, and being aware of the young age of most Malawians, predicted that a majority of infections were probably just asymptomatic, meaning many who were infected didn’t suffer severely enough to be urged to get tested or go to the hospital.
This prompted Jambo and his team to find a new source of information. They turned their attention to a repository of blood samples that had been collected over the course of many months. Their findings? By the beginning of Malawi’s third COVID-19 wave with the delta variant last summer, 80% of the population had already been infected with the coronavirus.
Similar studies have been performed in Kenya, Madagascar, and South Africa. “And practically in every place they’ve done this, the results are exactly the same,” Jambo added.
Less than 5% of Malawians have been fully vaccinated, so their apparent resistance to severe disease was most likely built up due to poor exposure to earlier variants.
“Now we have had the beta variant- we have had the delta variant and the original,” Jambo noted. “It seems like a combination of those three has been able to neutralize this omicron variant in terms of severe disease.” Now with omicron peaking across Africa, each country has exhibited the same fortunate pattern: a huge rise in infections that hasn’t been matched with a corresponding rise in hospitalizations, nor death.
South Africa was not so lucky. While they have also experienced immunization, it came at a high cost. Their population is much older than Malawi, which resulted in swamped hospitals during the delta wave last summer.
Shabir Madhi is the volcanologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He says the upside is that “we’ve come to a point where at least three quarters– and now after omicron, probably 80%-- of South Africans have developed immunity and at least protection against severe disease and death.”
Mahdi has reason to believe this sort of immunization could last up to a year. To better move forward, “We need to ensure that at least 90% of people above the age of 50 are vaccinated,” Mahdi said.
He suggests that by the time the next variant comes, it will be important not to immediately panic over the mere rise in infections. Mahdi believes a rise in infections is inevitable and policies intended to stop it aren't just damaging but rather, “fanciful thinking,” saying that officials should instead be more focused on the unlikely possibility of severe illness and death.