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Africa May Be On The Verge Of A Third Wave Of COVID-19 Infections

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There is concern among public health officials that Africa is on the verge of a third wave of COVID infections. Cases are surging and have hit record highs in several countries in Africa. NPR's Jason Beaubien is on the line from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: What are the trends that are causing this concern right now?

BEAUBIEN: So one of the big trends is the lack of vaccination that has happened across most of Africa. You've got less than 1% of the continent fully vaccinated, you know, when compared to much higher rates in almost every other part of the world. And then you're starting to see some places where you are seeing real spikes in cases. You're seeing record numbers of cases in Zambia and Namibia in southern Africa. And then up in East Africa, also, Uganda is really cranking up, and it also - at record levels in terms of the numbers they're reporting. You know, Zambia went from tallying roughly 50 cases a day a month ago to reporting 2,350 yesterday. So it's these types of surges that you're starting to see - and they're not all in one place - that really have people worried. The other big factor is that in many of these countries that are seeing surges in cases, the positivity rate is way above the WHO's recommended 5% threshold. And this is important because it means that there's potentially a lot more cases out there that aren't being picked up. The WHO says 5% is about where you want to be. Namibia, at the moment, is at 27%, way above that threshold. Yeah.

DETROW: But you're in Sierra Leone. And it sounds, from what you've said last time we talked, that it is a very different situation there. Why is that? What's the situation in Sierra Leone?

BEAUBIEN: And that's part of what's so interesting here. You know, in some countries that are right next door to each other, you're seeing almost no cases. Here where I am in Sierra Leone, they basically are getting a handful of cases each day. They haven't had huge influxes of people into hospitals. Really, it seems very much under control. People aren't wearing masks. Things have kind of gone back to normal. So you're getting this contrast between some countries where it really seems like it's on the rise - hospitals are filling up - and places like here, where that's not the case at all.

DETROW: Lastly, it's an issue of vaccine access, but how much of this is about bulking up the infrastructure, as well?

BEAUBIEN: You know, that's really going to be key to getting vaccines out in Africa. Many countries here are not in a position to be distributing particularly the Pfizer vaccine yet, which has to have a really super ultra-cold freezer to store in wherever the main warehouse is. Many countries don't have that yet. Systems need to be bulked up in many places to be able to get these vaccines out into arms. And that's really a concern as the vaccines start to flow more and more into the continent.

DETROW: Jason Beaubien from Sierra - joining us from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Thank you so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.