The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly taking over in West Africa

While the highly infectious SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant has already become predominant in Germany and in most European nations, little was known about its spread in Africa. German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) scientists at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, in a study in Benin, West Africa, have now been able to show that the variant categorized as alarming by the WHO developed into the dominant virus form within only two months. A drastic increase in COVID-19 cases reported from Benin is presumably closely related.

The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 occurred in India for the first time at the end of 2020 and, since then, it has developed as the predominant virus form worldwide. Regarding the spread in Africa, however, to date there has hardly been any data, because both the laboratory infrastructure and the reporting system are weak. Together with his team and the Reference laboratory of Benin, Prof. Jan Felix Drexler, a virologist at the German Center for Infection Research at the Charité, was able to show that the Delta variant has been circulating in Benin, West Africa since May 2021 and has become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 virus variant in only two months. "More than 60 percent of cases that we investigated in July already traced back to this especially infectious variant," Drexler said.

In the context of a project financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and development (BMZ) via the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (GIZ) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the scientists sequenced the virus viral genomes from 166 patient samples from May to July 2021 and thus determined the SARS-CoV-2 variant. The Delta variant was found for the first time on May 27, about six months after the first verification in Asia and about a month after the first verification in Europe.

In conjunction with these results, Benin has recorded a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases since the end of July. "We assume that this increase in cases of illness can be traced back to the verified spread of the Delta variant," Drexler explained. Only about one percent of all people in Benin are vaccinated, so that the Delta virus can go on the attack unimpeded. "Vaccination campaigns in Africa must be bolstered," Drexler appealed, and added: "This applies not only to Benin, but also to other nations of the global south." The available data demonstrate that vaccinations also protect against severe courses of infections with the Delta variant.

Jan Felix Drexler's team now plans antibody studies in Benin and the adjoining African nations, which can provide information on the immune status in the population.

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