World Health Organisation (WHO) data show that coronavirus infections in Africa have been dropping since July despite fears when COVID-19 first emerged last year that the pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions.
Although it’s still unclear what COVID-19’s ultimate toll will be, that catastrophic scenario has yet to materialise in Zimbabwe or much of the continent.
Scientists emphasise that obtaining accurate COVID-19 data, particularly in African countries with patchy surveillance, is extremely difficult, and warn that declining coronavirus trends could easily be reversed.
But there is something “mysterious” going on in Africa that is puzzling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, chair of global health at Columbia University. She said:
Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the US, but somehow they seem to be doing better.
Some researchers say the continent’s younger population – the average age is 20 versus about 43 in Western Europe — in addition to their lower rates of urbanisation and tendency to spend time outdoors, may have spared it the more lethal effects of the virus so far.
Several studies are probing whether there might be other explanations, including genetic reasons or past infection with parasitic diseases.
On Friday, researchers working in Uganda said they found COVID-19 patients with high rates of exposure to malaria were less likely to suffer severe disease or death than people with little history of the disease.
Jane Achan, a senior research advisor at the Malaria Consortium and a co-author of the study said:
We went into this project thinking we would see a higher rate of negative outcomes in people with a history of malaria infections because that’s what was seen in patients co-infected with malaria and Ebola.
We were actually quite surprised to see the opposite — that malaria may have a protective effect.
Achan said this may suggest that past infection with malaria could “blunt” the tendency of people’s immune systems to go into overdrive when they are infected with COVID-19.
The research was presented on Friday at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, said authorities are used to curbing outbreaks even without vaccines and credited the extensive networks of community health workers.
Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said African leaders haven’t gotten the credit they deserve for acting quickly, citing Mali’s decision to close its borders before COVID-19 even arrived.
Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups, suggested Africa might not even need as many vaccines as the West.
It’s an idea that, while controversial, he says is being seriously discussed among African scientists — and is reminiscent of the proposal British officials made last March to let COVID-19 freely infect the population to build up immunity.