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South Africa battles to contain a mutant strain of COVID-19

South Africa is battling to contain a mutant strain of COVID-19 that has now been found in more than 30 other countries, including in the U.S., which has prompted a raft of travel bans on South Africa. But across Africa itself, borders remain very much open on a continent that has little hope of getting enough vaccines for years to come. Special correspondent Chris Ocamringa reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to South Africa, which has been battling to contain a mutant strain of COVID-19 that studies now show renders two types of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna 60 percent less effective. The strain has now been found in more than 30 other countries, including here in the United States, prompting travel bans.

    But, as special correspondent Chris Ocamringa tells us, across Africa itself, borders remain very much open, and there's little hope of getting enough vaccines for years to come.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    Grave diggers find little rest in this cemetery in the port city of Cape Town. South Africa has recorded more than 46,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began, the highest number on the continent.

    And the toll continues to rise after the discovery of a new variant.

    Dr. Richard Mihigo of the World Health Organization.

  • Dr. Richard Mihigo:

    WHO, we are taking this quite very seriously because, from some preliminary data that are starting to emerge, it's clearly showing that the new variant is the force behind the new wave that we are seeing in many countries.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    The spread of the new variant has prompted a raft of countries, including the U.S., to ban travel from South Africa. The U.K. has gone a step further, banning new arrivals from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, amid fears the mutant strain is spreading rapidly there.

    At least 20 other countries, including the U.S., have also found cases. And while travel bans shutting South Africans out may help, borders remain open across Africa. That leaves not just countries like the DRC and others that are nations still open to flights from the rest of Africa vulnerable.

    And according to health officials, like Dr. Kalubi Mulamba, the DRC has seen a spike in infections over the last five months.

  • Dr. Kalubi Mulamba:

    The second wave of COVID, when it came, we have received many patients. When we can try to compare the first and the second, we can say that now we have received more patients than before.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    Health experts here believe the rise in cases may be caused by a completely new variant.

  • Dr. Placide Mbala:

    We are still analyzing the samples. So, it's possible that this variant is already in the country.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    Identifying which variants are prevalent across the world is key to containing the virus. In that effort, the WHO and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set up COVID-19 genomic sequencing laboratories in the DRC and other African countries to help boost their capacity to detect the new variants.

  • Dr. Richard Mihigo:

    We are for the moment asking countries to ship to these regional reference laboratory a minimum of at least 20 a specimen of the virus, so that we can be able to establish the stipulation of the new variant that's been detected in South Africa, but also in other several countries in Africa.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    But the fact that people haven't stopped traveling among African countries, including migrant laborers and businesspeople, means there is very little way of knowing how far the variant first found in South Africa is spreading across the continent.

    This Congolese family in the capital Kinshasa has a home in South Africa, and they're determined not to let the pandemic wreck their ability to travel back and forth.

  • Daniella Maweja:

    I think it's a matter of taking responsibility, the sanitary measures. I'm not too worried about it, as long as I stick to what I have got to do, put on the mask, have your sanitizer. It's a wave. It's going to come and go, so you have just got to protect yourself.

  • Alphonse Mulopo:

    We apply those measures and we are safe. So, I trust them. And I'm willing to travel, because I have to go and visit my family.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    Not everyone is as relaxed.

    Some African countries, like Nigeria, are doubling down in their efforts to contain the new variants, with quarantine rules for people coming from countries where they are prevalent.

    Still, borders remain open, increasing Africa's vulnerability in the absence of a meaningful vaccine rollout across the continent. South Africa, which was on the cusp of starting its mass vaccination program, suddenly and controversially paused the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Reports suggest the vaccine may offer only minimal protection against mild disease in young people caused by the variant.

    The research indicates that, nevertheless, the vaccine does protect against serious disease, hospitalization and death. And, meanwhile, South Africa has announced plans to use the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine instead. How South Africa recovers from stalling the start of its vaccine program is unclear.

    Even so, it's made more progress with vaccinations than some other African countries, where vaccine skepticism in other African countries is compounding the problem.

    Tanzania's president doubts their efficacy entirely.

  • John Magufuli (through translator):

    We Tanzanians must be very careful about receiving medical supplies from abroad. And I am asking the Health Ministry not to be quick to accept any vaccine without ascertaining its efficacy.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    As researchers investigate ways to modify COVID-19 vaccines, to tackle the variant originally discovered in South Africa, the Africa CDC has warned about rising fatality rates across the continent.

    And with more than 3.5 million coronavirus cases already reported in Africa, the continent is only now beginning to receive the first arrivals of COVID-19 vaccines on a wider scale. But the reality is, there won't be enough vaccines for potentially years to come.

    And as borders remain open, the question remains: What's Africa's way out of the pandemic?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Chris Ocamringa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And today, in an today in an effort to start helping the way out, the Biden administration announced it would support a global push to distribute COVID vaccines equitably. It added $2 billion for the effort to ensure vaccine availability, adding to the $2 billion authorized by Congress last year.

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