Data dive: Variants

Each new COVID-19 infection is an opportunity for the virus to mutate and form new variants.

Africa has experienced four waves of the pandemic since the virus first emerged two years ago. Each wave brings a new peak in infections. There are thousands of COVID-19 variants, and some – such as Delta and Omicron – are proving to be more transmissible than others.

Variants have defined both the third (Delta) and fourth (Omicron) waves across Africa and continue to pose a threat to overwhelmed health systems, people who are immunocompromised, and those who are unvaccinated.

The Omicron variant was first reported to WHO at the end of November 2021. Since then, it has replaced Delta as the dominant variant in many countries around the world.

Omicron has led to record high infections across Africa, but compared to previous waves, deaths have not increased at the same pace. However, we have an incomplete picture of the pandemic’s impact in Africa. This is due largely to the extremely low number of tests conducted by African countries, and significant gaps in hospitalisation and mortality data.

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    The key numbers

    Confirmed cases in Africa reached their highest point on 10 January 2022, surpassing the previous peak reached during the third wave in July 2021. Since then, confirmed cases on the continent have been falling. This was largely driven by the dramatic increase, and quick fall, of cases in South Africa.

    Official deaths have remained below the peak seen in July, but have increased since December. During the first three waves of the pandemic in Africa, deaths increased at similar rates as cases. Thus far, this trend has not been seen during the fourth wave.

    Data challenges and testing shortages may mean the full impact of the variant could be worse than what the reporting shows.

    As of 19 May 2022:

    • Daily confirmed cases: 6537 (-25.39% in the last week)
    • Daily confirmed deaths:48 (25.75% in the last week)

    How are confirmed cases evolving in each country

    Omicron caused a rapid increase in cases across many African countries in December 2021 and January 2022.

    Since the start of the wave, many countries have reported record numbers of confirmed infections. Official deaths have increased in some countries, but have not reached the same levels seen during the third wave.

    The chart below shows the evolution of confirmed cases. Hovering over a country reveals a chart which compares confirmed cases and deaths to the numbers reported the peaks observed during the third wave.

    Missing data is a major problem

    Good and timely data has been essential in responding to COVID-19 throughout the world. However, not all countries have the same means and infrastructure for testing and reporting data on hospitalisations or deaths.

    We know little about the pandemic’s true impact on African countries from a health perspective. There’s extremely limited and selective testing in most countries. We lack access to hospitalisation data for most countries and mortality statistics can lag for many years.

    For example, according to official statistics, 0.39% of Africa’s population was confirmed to have had COVID-19 by mid-2021. But according to serological surveys — which measure the presence of antibodies —  some 22% of Africa’s total population had been exposed to the virus as of mid-2021. That’s 50 to 60 times more than the official count. Other serological surveys from Malawi and South Africa are also reporting that nearly 80% of their population have been exposed to or infected by some strain of the coronavirus. 

    Testing is so limited that in mid-January 2022, France — with a population of 67 million —  was conducting seven times more daily tests than the entire African continent, which has a population of over 1.2 billion people.

    Numbers and analysis of the impact of COVID, and of the Omicron wave, should therefore be interpreted with caution.

    What’s at stake with variants?

    Omicron may not be as deadly as previous variants such as Delta, but there is still much to be learned about its impact. It is not the first variant to emerge, and it won’t be the last. And there is no guarantee that future variants will be less deadly or severe.

    Efforts to vaccinate the world and provide equitable access to diagnostics, treatments, and other measures that help lower and manage the risk of infection must continue to be scaled up to help stop the spread of the virus and protect our communities and health systems.

    How can I learn more and stay informed?

    ONE’s Africa COVID-19 Tracker provides the latest reliable figures, commentary, and analysis on the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic on the continent. Sign up for our weekly email Aftershocks and follow @ONEAftershocks.