On Sunday, the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa released data showing a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths on the continent. “We are now in a resurgence,” the report noted, adding that the numbers still seem more modest than a peak in December 2020 and January 2021.
In some hot spots, the wave of infections has swamped health care facilities. According to Reuters, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi said earlier this month that hospitals in the capital, Kinshasa, were “overwhelmed” with new cases, and that he was prepared “to take drastic measures.” In Kenya, people have been turned away from hospitals amid a rise in infections, while in Somalia and Uganda, shortages of medical oxygen are making it difficult to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients. And South Africa, which has struggled with high rates of Covid-19 for much of the pandemic, is now undergoing a third wave.
For months, one enduring mystery of the pandemic was why many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in South Asia, were reporting so few severe Covid-19 cases and deaths, despite some evidence of widespread viral transmission. In Africa, experts have proposed a range of answers: The population skews young. Countries may be underreporting Covid-19 cases and deaths, obscuring the true toll. Exposure to malaria, some researchers have even speculated, could prime the immune system to fend off Covid-19.
In India, the apparent respite from Covid-19’s worst effects did not last: A major outbreak, fueled by a highly transmissible new variant, termed Delta, tore through the country in April and May, swamping hospitals and crematoriums. While official data puts the country’s Covid-19 death toll since the start of the pandemic at around 390,000, other estimates suggest the true number could now be more than 2 million.
As cases spiked in India, some public health experts expressed fears that parts of Africa could face a similar outbreak. “What’s happening in India must not happen here,” the lead WHO official in Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters in May.
But this week, health officials and scientists expressed concern that the Delta variant will drive new waves of infection in Africa. And while Covid-19 vaccines remain largely effective against the Delta variant, few have reached Africa. “Although major progress has been made with Covid-19 vaccinations, there remains a serious imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines with Africa,” the WHO report notes, adding that the supply to date is “sufficient for less than 1 percent of the population of the continent.”
Also in the News:
• The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced on Thursday that it has identified hundreds of unmarked graves — using a technology that allows them to remain untouched — at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. The news comes after a similar discovery at a site in British Columbia last month. From the late 19th century through 1996, some 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were enrolled in the country’s residential school system, which was designed to force assimilation. Many were forcibly taken from their families and physically and sexually abused. Others, as former students have long known and recent discoveries have highlighted, never returned home. “What was profound to me is that when survivors talk to you, they know that children are buried here, and they point to the hill,” Terence Clark, an archaeology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told The Globe and Mail, referring to a site on the Muskowekwan First Nation. He and other researchers have been working with Indigenous groups to use ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, to find the remains of children at former school sites around Canada for several years. The technology, which is also being used to locate Native American children’s burial sites in the United States, emits high frequency radio waves that penetrate the ground. The waves are then reflected back at different strengths and rates, depending on the materials present, providing information about what lies beneath the surface. (CBC)
• Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest coral reef system, rendered fragile by global warming — became the subject of an international spat this week. On Monday, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee recommended that the site, a popular tourist destination, be placed on the organization’s World Heritage in Danger list. UNESCO said the outlook of the reef has “deteriorated from poor to very poor” due to damage from warming oceans, and called on the Australian government to do more to protect it. But Australian government officials defended the country’s caretaking of the reef, calling it “the best managed reef in the world” and saying that UNESCO’s recommendation was based on incomplete and outdated information. Some Australian tourism operators worry that an “in danger” label will bolster perceptions that the reef is dying and dissuade tourists from visiting. But some environmentalists see the label as a needed warning to an Australian government that has generally taken a lax stance on climate change. The recommendation will be up for consideration when the World Heritage Committee meets next month. Currently, 53 cultural and natural sites are on the World Heritage in Danger list, including one in the U.S.: Florida’s Everglades National Park. (The Associated Press)
• The National Weather Service is warning that an “unprecedented” heat wave will settle over much of the Pacific Northwest this weekend and next week. The high temperatures are expected to last between three and seven days and shatter temperature records across the region. The intensity and duration of the heat wave — with temperatures expected to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit in many areas, as much as 30 degrees higher than normal for this time of year — have led officials to warn about the health risks of such extreme temperatures and to direct residents to cooling centers in a part of the country where air conditioning is relatively scarce. The heat wave follows several days of extreme heat in the American Southwest last week; Europe is also reporting extreme temperatures this week, setting records in Russia and eastern Europe. In both the U.S. and Europe, high-pressure phenomena known as heat domes are driving the spike in temperature. Researchers say heat domes are becoming more common as the climate warms. (Multiple sources)
• In a controversial decision earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the drug aducanumab to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Now, newly released memos from the FDA have shed light on the internal deliberations that preceded the decision. Developed by the pharmaceutical company Biogen, aducanumab flags proteins called amyloid plaques in patients’ brains so their immune systems can clear them away. However, scientists remain divided over whether removing those plaques actually treats Alzheimer’s symptoms, and last November an FDA-convened advisory panel said there was no clear evidence that aducanumab works. But, according to the newly released memos, top FDA officials continued to argue that removing the plaques was likely to have some clinical benefit, and pushed for the drug’s approval. Not everyone was on board: According to one of the memos, Sylva Collins, the FDA’s director of the Office of Biostatistics, “dissented on the approach, stating her belief that there is insufficient evidence to support accelerated approval or any other type of approval.” Axios reports that the FDA’s approval of the drug, which comes with a high price tag and potentially serious side effects, could have “lasting financial and scientific repercussions.” (Axios)
• And finally: On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the national eviction moratorium by one month, moving the expiration date from June 30 to July 31. Formally known as the “Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions to Prevent the Further Spread of Covid-19,” the controversial public health order prevents many landlords from evicting tenants for the nonpayment of rent. (Tenants have to meet a stringent list of requirements to qualify for the protections.) In justifying the policy, CDC officials have argued that evictions during the pandemic could drive Covid-19 transmission. But landlord groups have challenged the order, arguing that the CDC overstepped its legal authority. As the June 30 expiration date approached, the Biden administration faced pressure from federal lawmakers, state and local officials, and tenants’ rights groups to extend the moratorium. Still, the policy’s days are likely numbered: A legal challenge recently arrived at the Supreme Court, and the White House said this week it does not have plans to extend the moratorium again. (The New York Times)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Sudhi Oberoi, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.