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New WHO Model Forecasts A Different Coronavirus Spread Pattern In Africa


There have been fewer recorded COVID-19 cases and deaths in Africa than in any other region. The World Health Organization has produced a new model for African governments to use as they move to reopen. As NPR's Eyder Peralta reports, it predicts the virus will move differently on the continent than it has elsewhere.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When the new coronavirus had started spreading around the world, we heard dire warnings. An earlier U.N. estimate predicted up to 3.3 million deaths in Africa without interventions. Top epidemiologists predicted panic, saying the death rate would be higher than Europe or China. But things have so far turned out differently here in sub-Saharan Africa.

BENSON DROTI: We are not seeing that rapid increase in the number of cases as we had actually predicted.

PERALTA: That is Benson Droti. He is part of a group of scientists at the World Health Organization's regional office for Africa. They took another look and developed a new model last month for what might happen on the continent. They accounted for Africa's young population. Many countries have median ages in the teens. They included how much harder it is for people to move around because of poor roads. And they also took stock of the early lockdowns many African countries implemented.

DROTI: Our markets been closed. Our schools been closed and so on and so on.

PERALTA: Because of those factors, their model found many parts of Africa would be spared the virus's exponential spread. The infection rate and the death rate would be significantly lower. Its worst-case scenario predicts about 189,000 Africans will die of COVID-19 in a year.

Carl Pearson is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He says the new study is making flawed assumptions. For example, it assumes Africa's young population will be more resilient.

CARL PEARSON: But what we don't know are things like, what is the interaction with malnutrition, with other infectious disease, with a bunch of risk factors that are present in Africa but that we don't know anything about in the rest of the world?

PERALTA: It's too early, he says, to make these kinds of predictions, especially because African countries are under testing and may be missing cases.

PEARSON: I've always been sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

PERALTA: And now things are starting to turn in Nigeria and South Africa, where cases are indeed rising exponentially. Pearson says modeling is hard - harder than predicting the path of a hurricane.

PEARSON: An epidemic is different in that when I decide to react to the quote-unquote "storm," that fundamentally changes the trajectory.

PERALTA: In other words, what people and governments do plays a huge role in how a pandemic evolves. Droti of the World Health Organization says that's why assumptions are central to modeling. And many times, the world assumes Africa will fail at everything.

DROTI: People expect that Africa and India must always be doing very poorly in all aspects.

PERALTA: William Moss, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, says the new WHO model is complex. At one level, it does indeed take a different view of Africa, full of countries that shut down early, instituted tracing, quarantining and flattening curves.

WILLIAM MOSS: And it's not painting Africa as this dire place.

PERALTA: But in another way, he says, it takes a realistic view. It warns that even with a slower spread of infection and lower death rate, the continent's poor health infrastructure is very likely to be overwhelmed.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.