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Study Finds Africa COVID Infections Grossly Underestimated


FILE - A woman wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus walks through the busy Bara Taxi Rank in Soweto, South Africa, April 5, 2022.

A study by the World Health Organization finds the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa to be a fraction of the true number of people infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease.

A new analysis of the spread and the presence of asymptomatic cases of SARS-CoV 2, the virus that causes COVID-19, finds infections in Africa skyrocketed from 3% of the population in June 2020 to 65% by September 2021.

The WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said the analysis of 151 studies reveals the true number of COVID-19 infections in Africa could be 97% higher than the number of confirmed reported cases.

“This suggests that more than two-thirds of all Africans have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus," she said. "And this compares to the global average, where the true number of infections is about 16 times higher than the number of confirmed reported cases … In real terms, this means that in September 2021, rather than the reported 8.2 million cases, there were in fact 800 million infections.”

The World Health Organization confirmed 11.6 million cases of COVID-19 on the African continent as of April 3, including more than 250,000 deaths. Given the new findings, the WHO acknowledged the number of actual infections is likely to be much larger.

Moeti said it is complicated to get accurate data in Africa because 67% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms. She said that highlights the need to sustain high levels of routine testing and surveillance to stay ahead of the pandemic.

“With many social protection measures now being relaxed, it will become even more important to allow for tracking of the virus in real time, and monitoring of its evolution," she said. "Our analysis is clear evidence of the continued significant circulation of the COVID-19 virus among the people on the continent. With this comes the heightened risk of more lethal variants that can overwhelm existing immunity.”

The WHO study finds exposure to the coronavirus rose sharply following the emergence of the beta and the delta variants.

People who become ill with COVID-19 enjoy some degree of immunity. However, Moeti said vaccination remains the best defense against infection as well as adding a level of protection against newly mutating strains of the virus.

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