JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic in Africa is reaching “full speed,” the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief said Thursday, while a South African official said a single province is preparing 1.5 million graves.

Just a day after confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa surpassed the half-million milestone the total was over 522,000 and climbing, with more than 12,000 deaths. With testing levels low, the real numbers are unknown.

South Africa has the most confirmed cases with over 224,000, and for the first time Gauteng province — home to Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria — has the country’s most cases with over 75,000, or 33%.

Provincial official Bandile Masuku, a medical doctor, startled South Africans when he told reporters Wednesday that Gauteng is preparing over 1.5 million graves. “It’s a reality that we need to deal with,” he said, and it’s the public’s responsibility “to make sure that we don’t get there.”

But the province in a statement Thursday sought to calm fears, saying it “does not have over a million already open dug graves” and clarified that the official was saying the province has enough space for that many. It also said six members of Gauteng’s COVID-19 War Room have tested positive for the virus.

Modeling has shown that South Africa will have nowhere close to that many deaths in the months ahead. Several models forecast between 40,000 and 80,000 by the end of the year.

Asked about the graves, Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said “there’s absolutely no harm to think ahead” and prepare for the “worst-case scenario.”

’We’ve crossed a critical number here,” he said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.”

He called for more mask-wearing, saying “this battle will be won or lost at the community level.” He also called for more testing, as just 5.7 million tests for the new virus have been conducted across the continent of 1.3 billion people.

With painful memories of many people dying in Africa while waiting for accessible HIV drugs years ago, the Africa CDC on Thursday launched a consortium aimed at securing more than 10 late-stage COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials on the continent as early as possible.

“We want to be sure we don’t find ourselves in the 1996 scenario where HIV drugs were available but it took almost seven years for those drugs to be accessible on the continent,” Nkengasong said.

With any COVID-19 vaccine, a “delay in Africa of even one year would be catastrophic,” he said.

He said the new consortium of African institutions will engage with the GAVI vaccine alliance and other entities outside the continent amid efforts to ensure that a vaccine is distributed equitably from the start.

Those efforts are challenged by the United States and others assertively making deals with vaccine makers to secure supplies in advance.

The African Union last month said governments around the world should “remove all obstacles” to swift and equitable distribution of any successful COVID-19 vaccine, including by making all intellectual property and technologies immediately available.

Africa in recent days has begun taking part in COVID-19 vaccine trials in the face of increasing misinformation on the continent. Trials have begun in South Africa and Egypt, but Nkengasong said a “continent of 1.3 billion people deserves more than just two countries participating.”

A vaccine “is the only weapon to allow our lives to return to normal,” he said.

Conducting clinical trials in Africa is crucial to see how a vaccine performs in a local context — “extremely important," the World Health Organization's Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters Thursday.

Many life-saving vaccines have lagged between five and 20 years from the time they become available in high-income countries to when they're available in low-income ones. That's in part because local data is lacking, said Shabir Madhi, principal investigator of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial in South Africa.

Africa has some 17% of the world's population and less than 3% of its clinical trials, he said. “If anything, the criticism right now shouldn’t be about the possibility of using Africans as guinea pigs.”

Africa sees few trials “because there’s very little financial incentive on the part of industry,” Madhi added. “So the entire conversation needs to be flipped on its head.”

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