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Why South Africa’s COVID outbreak is raising alarms

September 2, 2021, 10:00 PM UTC

As COVID spreads rapidly in South Africa, researchers have identified a new COVID-19 variant, as the country struggles to get enough vaccines to inoculate its population.

The variant, C.1.2, was first discovered in May in the provinces where Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, are located. The strain has not yet been classified as a “variant of interest” or as a more dangerous “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, but it is still associated with increased transmissibility and ability to avoid antibodies, according to a research paper published by the scientists who first identified it.

Other variants, including the prominent Delta variant, have wreaked havoc among the unvaccinated around the world. It is yet to be seen how C.1.2 will progress and how it will affect South Africa’s large unvaccinated population.

The country has vaccinated approximately 10% of its population, according to a Fortune analysis of CDC data. South Africa has had trouble attaining enough vaccines to fully inoculate its population, like many other countries on the continent. Nigeria has vaccinated 0.7% of its population, and Kenya has vaccinated 1.5% of its citizens. The WHO has criticized plans for developed nations to begin offering booster shots to its citizens while developing nations struggle to secure vaccines.

South Africa has received vaccine donations from several nations including the United States, which sent it 2.2 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses this weekend, on top of 5.6 million doses it sent in July as part of the global vaccination program COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX. African Union special envoy Strive Masiyiwa has criticized rich countries for lagging on their goal to send 700 million doses to Africa by the end of 2021.

Johnson & Johnson was also sharply denounced recently for exporting doses produced in South Africa to Europe. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that millions of Johnson & Johnson vaccines will now be returned and distributed to African countries.

By the end of 2021, South Africa aims to have vaccinated 67% of its population of 60 million. Some in the country have been reluctant to get the vaccine, despite hesitancy declining overall, according to a report by the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) Developmental, Capable and Ethical State research division. Only 40% of those who were vaccinated by Aug. 13 were men, according to a report by South Africa’s National Department of Health.

So far, South Africa is the African country hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Thursday, the country reported more than 144,000 active cases and 235 daily deaths, according to the South African health department’s website.

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