After a fairly “relaxed” few months in the Coronavirus wars, many of us were dispirited last week to learn of the emergence of a highly transmissible new variant, Omicron, which was first identified by scientists in South Africa.
In a joint press conference on Friday with Patrick Vallance, England’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, Boris Johnson levelled with the nation about its seriousness – and what measures the UK would take to combat it, from the re-introduction of compulsory mask wearing and a new PCR test requirement for people arriving at airports. Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, has today expanded on the threat it poses.
Whether the Government’s steps are enough will be the subject of many questions over the next few weeks. But perhaps the most important is what Omicron symbolises for the international community; specifically around whether the distribution of vaccines has been as equitable as it could have been.
From the early stages of the crisis, prominent experts and the World Health Organization have warned of the importance of equitable vaccine distribution, first for moral reasons, but also because an imbalance could leave a vacuum for new variants to develop, and evade vaccines/ treatment. The emergence of Omicron has only added to that concern – due to the fact that it emerged in a part of the world with low inoculation rates (only 24 per cent of the population in South Africa has been inoculated).
That the variant was discovered in South Africa does not mean it is where it originated (rather, its scientists have some of the best detection tools); indeed, there are cases in Hong Kong, Canada and the UK. But it has nonetheless opened up the debate on whether more even vaccination rates around the globe could have made a difference, and how many new variants will take off elsewhere without better-protected communities.
There are still shocking statistics on inoculation rates worldwide; only 2.5 per cent of the population in low income countries, for example, have received full protection, with 3.5 billion people across the globe waiting for their first dose of the vaccine. At the same time, 66 per cent of high-income countries have been vaccinated, with many onto their booster jabs and plans to inoculate children.
Could high-income countries do more? It’s worth saying that many have gone to extraordinary efforts to get vaccines out. In July this year, for instance, the UK began donating millions of vaccinations as part of the international Covax scheme, and has pledged to donate 100 million overseas by June 2022.
As of September, the United States had donated approximately 140 million doses to around 83 countries, making it the highest donor, followed by China, Japan, India, the UK, France, Canada, Spain, Sweden and Poland.
But even these staggering figures – Covax’s initial goal is to provide two billion doses of vaccines worldwide in 2021 and 1.8 billion doses to 92 poorer countries by early 2022 – may need to be improved upon. There will also be pressure on countries to be more flexible about vaccine patents; the European Union is being asked to share more information with others.
Furthermore, some countries may need help overcoming logistical challenges to rolling out their vaccines, from having difficulties with storage, to experiencing shortages in health workers who can administer inoculations. It is not a simple case of more jabs, job done; governments have to consider these additional barriers.
Either way, it’s clear that equitable distribution will become much more of a talking point with the new variant; it is a reminder that the world is in it “together” when it comes to beating the virus. This often seems to be forgotten in all the talk about booster jabs – and it’s a shame that it only gets brought up when growing variants hit home. Even before Omicron, developed nations had a duty to do more here.