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Africa Sees Progress in Coronavirus Fight, but Also Setbacks

FILE - Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.
FILE - Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.

The African continent is seeing advances and setbacks in its fight against the coronavirus.

This week, officials welcomed the opening of a network of genome-sequencing laboratories. At the same time, the continent’s first vaccine trial has been paused after one participant in the Oxford-based trial became ill.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, announced Thursday that WHO and the African Centers for Disease Control are opening 12 laboratories on the continent to work on COVID-19 genome sequencing and data analysis.

“This network will help us to track the evolution of the virus to further develop vaccines and treatments tailored to African populations,” she said in a briefing with journalists. “And it will also help us to stay a step ahead of COVID-19.”

That announcement came on the heels of news that the continent’s first vaccine trial, being held in South Africa, has been paused. British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca announced this week that it had to halt large-scale global trials of its COVID-19 vaccine because a volunteer participant in Britain became ill after receiving the experimental drug.

In South Africa, the University of the Witwatersrand is testing the same vaccine on about 2,000 volunteers.

Professor Shabir Madhi, director of the South Africa trial, announced the decision late Wednesday.

“Pausing vaccination to review safety is evidence of the application of sound clinical practice and demonstrates the rigor of the independent oversight process under which this trial is being conducted,” he said. “Assessing the safety of the vaccine is the reason why studies such as these are essential in South Africa, before there is widespread use of the vaccine.”

Moeti added that the study’s decision to pause demonstrates that the scientific strategy against the virus is working as it should.

"One of the purposes of a clinical trial is to identify exactly this possibility that there may be adverse effects, as they are called, in the use of a tool,” she said. ... “And in this case, very correctly, when it was found that a volunteer who had been healthy, developed an illness, this study had been halted for the moment, or paused. ... I think what this should be regarded as is something that you might expect in the course of a clinical trial. So, it should not cause us to panic."

Moeti added that globally, there are eight other candidate vaccines in Phase 3 of trials.

The sub-Saharan Africa region so far has reported just over 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, lower than in many parts of the world.

The United States currently carries the world’s heaviest burden of the virus, with more than 6.2 million cases, according to WHO data.

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