Records obtained from Zambia’s largest morgue has revealed that around 90 per cent of the deceased people brought in there tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection.
This finding, according to a report by Nature, may have flawed the idea of an ‘African paradox’ about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contrary to the predictions at the onset of the pandemic, Africa recorded low COVID-19 morbidity. This was puzzling to experts because of the continent-wide fragile health care system.
But with the recent finding that almost one-third of more than 1,000 bodies taken to a morgue in Lusaka between 2020 and 2021 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, it is being implied that many more people may have died of COVID-19 in Zambia’s capital than official numbers suggest.
Researchers say that the findings from Zambia could reflect the truth, which is that a deficit of testing and strained medical infrastructure may have masked COVID-19’s true toll on the continent. Although the findings, part of which were published by nature on March 23 were yet to be peer reviewed, the article suggests that ignoring the true extent of COVID-19 in Lusaka and beyond “is so wrong.
“People were ill. They’ve had their families destroyed,” said Christopher Gill, a global-health specialist at Boston University in Massachusetts and co-author who lost a colleague in Zambia to COVID-19 while working on the project.
Yakubu Lawal, an endocrinologist at the Federal Medical Centre in Azare, Bauchi State in Nigeria and other scientists had speculated that the relative youth of Africa’s population might have helped to spare the continent. They, however, expressed suspicion at officially reported numbers saying they may have been under-reported.
It is in a quest to ascertain the measure of under-reporting that Gill and his colleagues in Zambia tested bodies in one of Lusaka’s largest morgues for SARS-CoV-2 over several months in 2020 and 2021. Test positivity was 32% overall — and reached around 90% during the peak of the waves caused by the Beta and Delta variants. Meanwhile, only 10% of the people whose bodies were found to contain the virus after death had tested positive while still alive. Some had falsely tested negative, but most had never been tested at all.
Although Gill and his colleagues can’t confirm that all of these people died of COVID-19, the results still stand in sharp contrast to official numbers. So far, there have been fewer than 4,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Zambia, a country of around 19 million people. Separate findings published on 10 March suggest that Zambia’s ‘excess’ deaths, those above what would usually be expected, from 1 January 2020 to the end of 2021, exceeded 80,0003.