Uganda Virus Research Institute investigates low Covid-19 cases

Updated by Faith Barbara Namagembe at 1203 EAT on Friday 22 April 2022.

The Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) has started a study to investigate why the country and some of its neighbours are reporting low COVID-19 cases.

The study is expected to last four years and will look at what contribution the different COVID-19 variants have played in the spread of the disease on the African continent. One of the issues the study hopes to provide answers to is the low number of COVID-19 cases in some African countries.

Research from the World Health Organization (WHO) published last month showed that the African continent was least affected by the global pandemic that infected over 496 million people with 6 million succumbing to the pandemic. 

Despite having some of the weakest health systems in the world, research from WHO shows 11.4 million cases of COVID-19, with over 10 million recoveries and 251,000 deaths recorded in the past two years compared to 503 million cases and 6 million deaths reported globally.

Dr Jennifer Serwanga, a senior scientist in the Pathogen Genomics Phenotype and Immunity Programme (PGPI) on UVRI’s website is quoted as saying that initial tests show a baseline of very good antibodies in Ugandans which might explain why few COVID-19 cases were reported.

“We have been monitoring over 300 Ugandan COVID-19 survivors from a largely mild or asymptomatic infection for up to two years. Our specialists are currently analyzing their blood samples to possibly determine the equality and way of working of antibodies in Africans. Overall the study will provide additional to help researchers worldwide in understanding the unique features of our body immunity,” she said.

The participants of the study will be picked from different treatment sites while funding for it will come from the UK Research and Innovation, EDCTP and the government of Uganda.

The reason for Africa’s low COVID-19 infections compared to other parts of the world has been an issue of contention in the science world. With a weak health system, at the start of the pandemic, developed countries expressed worry about what the pandemic might do to Africa.

While scientists from other parts of the world have linked Africa’s few cases to under testing, African scientists say they believe the answer to the low cases could be the climate and lifestyle choices of many Africans.

The head of the Ministerial Scientific COVID-19 Committee, Dr Misaki Misaki Wayengera, attributes the trend of the disease on the continent to the low level of urbanization.

“COVID-19 is a disease of urbanity. Urbanization is responsible for the widespread distribution of COVID-19. Africa is not very urbanized. Consider Uganda, urbanization is around Kampala and a few towns. And the people in town take months to interact with those in rural places which helped keep the disease concentrated in some parts of the country,” he said.

Dr Misaki adds that African countries that have high levels of urbanization have recorded high cases of the diseases compared to those with lower levels.

“As a matter of fact, the level of urbanization and globalization can clearly be mapped out by the number of COVID cases they have had. For example, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt are very urbanized and as such have had very high cases of COVID because their population can easily fly in and out of the country which can spread the disease,” he said.  

Dr Monica Musenero, an epidemiologist also the minister of Science, Technology and Innovation attributed the country’s low cases to the weather and strong public health system.

“It is not just one thing that you can point out to explain the country’s cases. The weather has played a part but also the strong public health systems. While many scientists are quick to quote low testing, I think it is important for the world to pick a leaf from Uganda and see how they have managed to do it,” Musenero said.

Data from the Health ministry shows that 164,012 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed with 3,596 deaths. However, a recent study published by the UN health agency early this month reveals that the number of COVID-19 infections on the continent was 97 times the reported figure. 

In addition to explaining why few Africans fell sick, Dr Serwanga says the study will also help in vaccine development for the African continent. To date, all the country’s interventions on COVID-19 have been based on research from abroad.

This study however might help researchers develop vaccines that will be fine-tuned for the African continent.

“The study will also describe how these antibodies develop and how long they last thus informing vaccination and booster intervals,” she said.


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