The new, virulent omicron coronavirus variant is a significant rising global threat that could have been avoided if wealthy western countries had shared vaccines with the poorest nations, like those where the mutation evolved.
“Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us,” said Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is now an ambassador with the World Health Organization.
There are indications that omicron may spread with relative ease, but it’s too early to tell how virulent it may be.
African leaders forcefully pushed back against travel bans imposed by a number of nations, including the United States, arguing they cause economic harm, have no basis in science and are unfairly punishing people with little access to vaccines.
Full vaccination rates in the United States, France and China stand at 60 percent, 70 percent and 77 percent, respectively, but only 6 percent for Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been inoculated.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the global health policy center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Post called the new variant a consequence of "vaccine nationalism."
“Our achievements in our own country are at high risk because of the failures outside of our country, because of vaccine nationalism, not just in the United States and Europe, but also India and China,” said Morrison. “If you have uncontrolled transmission in large populations, that is the optimum environment for generating new variants. In Africa, you have a 6 percent vaccination rate. You’re going to get mutations.”
The World Health Organization is supporting a program to share vaccine doses around the world known as Covax.
Covax initially pledged to distribute 2 billion doses by year’s end, a target reduced to 1.425 billion in September, but as December arrives, only about 537 million of those vaccines have shipped.
The reasons are many.
India — which was to be Covax’s primary supplier — stopped exporting vaccines in March to focus instead on protecting its own population amid a devastating coronavirus surge.
At the same time, pledges from wealthy countries haven’t come through fast enough. Some that did shipped too close to their expiration dates for use.
Perhaps the biggest problem: Rich nations are still outcompeting poorer ones, giving booster shots widely and vaccines to children before the most vulnerable groups in many African countries have received their first doses.
“Countries with the highest vaccine coverage continue to stockpile more vaccines, while low-income countries continue to wait,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every day, there are six times more boosters administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries. This is a scandal that must stop now.”