Public health officials in Africa raised concern on Thursday that a dip in surveillance and testing for the coronavirus, as well as the loosening of public health measures, would make it harder to detect and respond to new waves as cases rise in parts of the continent.
The surge has mostly come in southern Africa, where cases have risen significantly over the previous week, according to the World Health Organization. As of Wednesday, new reported cases in South Africa have increased 80 percent from the average two weeks ago and deaths have increased 44 percent, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Many countries on the continent have reported significantly fewer tests administered, which could make it difficult to track new waves, said Dr. Abdou Salam Gueye, the director of emergency preparedness and response at the W.H.O. regional office for Africa.
“It makes us a little bit blind in knowing what exactly is the situation,” he said during W.H.O. Africa’s weekly briefing, adding that African countries should “put in place a system that will help with earlier detection and better response for Covid-19.”
Although testing levels have dropped in South Africa, public health officials have been able to detect an increased burden of the virus by testing wastewater, said Dr. Kerrigan McCarthy, a specialist pathologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa.
Meanwhile, vaccine distribution and use in Africa has also been slow. The first factory in Africa licensed to produce Covid-19 vaccines for the African market has not received a single order and may shut down that production line within weeks if the situation doesn’t change, according to executives of the company, Aspen Pharmacare.
The primary driver of the latest wave is the Omicron variant and the highly transmissible subvariants BA.2, BA.4 and BA.5, W.H.O. officials said. People in South Africa are still required to wear masks indoors, including in schools, and the government is still limiting the size of public gatherings. But as winter approaches in the Southern Hemisphere, the country’s most onerous social distancing and other public health restrictions have been eliminated.
The pandemic measures were loosened “primarily for economic reasons, and not necessarily for medical or public health reasons,” Dr. McCarthy said.
Despite the growing number of known cases, there are some promising signs. Hospitalizations in South Africa have remained low, according to the W.H.O. And deaths, a lagging indicator, have climbed at a slower rate than cases.