The emergence of a more transmissible variant of Covid-19, named Omicron, right when many hesitant countries had just started to open borders to foreign travellers confirms one thing for certain: rich countries hogging the covid-19 vaccines is going to ultimately be detrimental to them.
The longer the virus is left to spread, the more chances it has of mutations. The more the virus mutates the more variants it can create. And the more variants it creates, the more chances there are of the virus will stand steadfast the current vaccines that have already been administered to millions of people.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Omicron has a large number of mutations (32 to be precise), some of which are concerning and there is now evidence that there is an increased risk of reinfection with this variant compared to variants that have already appeared over the past year. The virus is spreading fast, now having engulfed not only South Africa where it originated but across the world including UK and Europe.
But to put an important data point here, South Africa has thus far only vaccinated 24 percent of its population. This is where the new deadly variant began. The variant in question is spreading amongst nations that have 60-70 percent of the population vaccinated. Evidently, these nations will remain vulnerable despite being vaccinated if populations in other countries are not vaccinated.
It has been argued that unvaccinated or immunosuppressed people are acting as reservoirs for the virus where the virus begins to mutate. Naturally, the solution is to vaccinate as many people as possible. Advocates of universal and wide access of the vaccine have been asking for a lifting of vaccine patents. Leading this proposal are India and South Africa that want intellectual property rights waived so they can begin local production of Pfizer and Moderna, but the debate is in deadlock. The proposal to the WTO was opposed by the EU, UK and Switzerland while the US supported the proposal in principle.
In a statement, US President Biden said last week: “The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations”, and that, nations should together waive IP protections for covid vaccines so they can be manufactured globally.
While most countries have moved to impose travel bans and restrictions from South Africa and other countries where the variant has been reported, the WTO ministerial meeting that was to raise this issue and was scheduled for the end of November was cancelled because of travel restrictions.
If the world is serious about the pandemic, it needs to come up with a better plan. Unvaccinated hotspots will breed more variants and economies—even if they are rich—cannot go for years on end with restricted travel, border closures and mobility bans. Already the world is reeling from a supply-chain crisis that has sent freight costs in a spiral, shortages in commodities and massive price rallies.
In any case, border closures are usually imposed once the virus/variant has already entered the borders through one or more carriers. The only way to ensure the virus has fewer chances to evolve is to stop it in its tracks and that is practically only possible through vaccination. But while high-income nations are providing booster shots having already protected a large number of their population, low-income nations have only provided shots to 8 percent or less of their population. Vaccine inequality, ironically, is all set to affect everyone.