East Africa: Region on Alert Over Omicron Variant

A nurse prepares to administer a Covid-19 vaccine to a patient at the Milimani Law Courts Nairobi (file photo).

Countries in the region are ramping up surveillance over fears of the new Covid-19 variant, with Kigali already introducing flight bans.

Kenyans on the other hand are staring at new Covid-19 restrictions ahead of the festive season as the government moves to respond to concerns over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Kenya's Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said a crisis meeting of the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) has been called to discuss and assess new steps to contain the virus.

While restrictive measures like a full lockdown are unlikely, Mr Kagwe did not give definite assurances that separate public health measures would not be imposed. Kenya plans to vaccinate at least 10 million by Christmas and 27.2 million by end of June next year. So far 2.65 million adults are fully vaccinated, 9.8 percent of the population.

Vaccine manufacture

In Rwanda, Dr Tharcisse Mpunga, the State Minister for Primary Healthcare, told The EastAfrican that the new variant shows the urgency for African nations to manufacture vaccines. Kigali has inked a deal with BioNTech for the construction in Germany of a containerised manufacturing unit that will then be installed in Rwanda.

"The new variant should make the plan move faster. Now we know we need even more Covid-19 vaccine doses for booster shots," Dr Mpunga said.

BioNTech signed deals with Rwanda and Senegal in October to establish vaccine manufacturing plants in efforts to curb unequal access to vaccines by developing countries.

After fully vaccinating around 3.5 million people and giving the first dose to more than five million, including children aged 12-17, Rwanda recently rolled out a campaign to give booster shots to the elderly and hospital staff. For these, Kigali will need about eight million extra doses above the 16 million doses that were needed to fully vaccinate 7.7 million people (or 60 percent of the population) by June 2022.

Fourth wave fears

In the past few months, Rwanda has received around five million vaccine doses from donors including Canada, China, Greece, Belgium, UK and Italy. It also acquired vaccines through Covax while other doses were bought through the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust.

In Tanzania, only 2.7 percent of the population has received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose despite warnings of a possible fourth wave.

Data from the Health Ministry shows only 1.02 million Tanzanians have been fully vaccinated out of 62.2 million.

Tanzania has so far received over 4.3 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines -- 499,590 doses of Pfizer, about 1,227,400 doses of the Janssen vaccine and 2,578,400 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, Dr Dorothy Gwajima, the Health Minister, confirmed last Monday.

Tanzania has recorded 731 deaths from the virus and cumulative infections stand at 26,273 as of end of last month.

Dr Aifello Sichalwe, Tanzania's chief medical officer, urged citizens to step up in adhering to precautions against a possible fourth wave of Covid-19 infections as the new variant threatens to roll back the fight against the disease.

"Recently there has been a threat of a fourth wave of Covid-19 from indicators including increasing new cases and new strains of the virus in some countries in the world, movements in and out of the country during this period for end-of-year holidays and very low percentage of vaccinated people in the country," Dr Aifello Sichwale said, adding that the Health Ministry will keep monitoring and testing all travellers at the airports, ports and at all border points.

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