The mistake that created a ‘breeding ground’ for Omicron

·5-min read

Failure to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 has created the "perfect breeding ground" for new variants, including the new Omicron variant, campaigners from the People’s Vaccine Alliance say.

It's been almost a year since a 90-year-old grandmother from the UK became the first person in the world, outside the trials, to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

Since then, over 117 million vaccines have been given in the UK, while Australia has vaccinated more than 88 per cent of its population.

While some countries have enough doses to inoculate their entire population, as of mid-November only 6.8 per cent of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated.

Only five of Africa's 54 countries are on track to reach a World Health Organisation target of fully vaccinating 40 per cent of the population by the end of 2021, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation said in a report on Covid-19 in Africa.

A woman gets a shot of Sinopharm vaccination at Parirenyatwa group of hospitals on December 01, 2021 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is among the southern African countries facing travel bans after the Omicron Covid-19 variant was first reported in neighboring South Africa.
While rich nations around the world have vaccinated millions, countries in Africa are lagging behind due to vaccine inequality. Source: Getty Images

"The number of people in the UK who’ve had their third booster jab is almost the same as the total number of people fully vaccinated across all of the world’s poorest countries," a press release from Oxfam Australia said.

According to the World Health Organisation, about 1.5 billion vaccine doses are being produced every month, so it isn't a supply problem – vaccine inequality is fuelled by an allocation problem.

COVAX was meant to avoid vaccine inequality, but the initiative is short of the necessary shots.

"The emergence of Omicron reminds us that COVID-19 remains a global threat, and that vaccinating the whole world is the only way forward," Mo Ibrahim, chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation said in a statement.

"Yet we continue to live with extreme vaccine discrimination, and Africa in particular is being left behind."

An overview of Discovery Health Covid-19 vaccination site on October 21, 2021 in Sandton, South Africa.
Developing nations are being left behind in the worldwide effort to vaccinate against Covid-19. Source: Gallo Images via Getty Images

Omicron should be a 'wake-up call'

Omicron was first detected in November this year in southern Africa and the spread has heightened claims that low inoculation rates can encourage viral mutations, which can then spread to countries where rates are much higher.

"Omicron is with us because we have failed to vaccinate the world," Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said.

"This should be a wake-up call."

The People's Vaccine Alliance has over 80 members, including African Alliance, Oxfam and UNAIDS.

Ms Byanyima said while pharmaceutical firms have seen huge profits from the vaccine, the virus continues to mutate and called upon major companies like Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech to change course.

"You don’t need to make any more money," she said. 

"Changing your vaccines to meet the challenge of Omicron is no good if your vaccine recipes are once again locked up behind a wall of profit and monopoly.”

Experts and groups like the People's Vaccine Alliance have warned for months vaccine inequality could hinder the world's recovery from the pandemic.

"Back in March, the Alliance along with 77 epidemiologists from some of the world’s leading academic institutions warned that unless we vaccinate the world, we’d be at risk of virus mutations that could render our current vaccines ineffective," Oxfam Australia said.

“Fighting to buy up limited supplies of hugely expensive vaccines to protect your own citizens whilst ignoring the rest of the world will only lead to more variants, more mutations, more lockdowns and more lives lost," Maaza Seyoum, of the African Alliance and People’s Vaccine Alliance Africa, said. 

"The same leaders, after failing the world repeatedly while allowing profiteering, are now laying the blame at the doorstep of the countries they have ignored."

Pharmaceutical companies and rich nations must step up to end vaccine inequality. Source: Getty Images
Pharmaceutical companies and rich nations must step up to end vaccine inequality. Source: Getty Images

Calls for companies, rich nations to 'end' pandemic

The Alliance has called for the immediate approval of the waiving of intellectual property rules, to "end the monopoly control of pharmaceutical firms over COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments".

The WHO must also agree on the waiver urgently and not wait to reconvene next year to do so.

The vaccines, including those designed to combat variants like Omicron must be declared global public goods, with information on how to make them shared openly with producers worldwide, The Alliance said.

Rich nations are also being called upon by the People's Vaccine Alliance to insist on the open sharing of vaccine technology, so vaccine production can be expanded around the world.

"It is time that pharmaceutical companies and rich nations finally put protecting people and putting an end to this pandemic ahead of profits, monopolies and self-defeating attempts to protect themselves whilst allowing this disease to rampage across the rest of the world,” Ms Seyoum said.

Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott said in the statement the emergence of Omicron makes it clear the world cannot use booster shots to get out of the pandemic, while the developing world is left behind.

People who have just received their jab against COVID-19 Friday Dec. 3, 2021 wait for their vaccine card to be processed at the Orange Farm, South Africa, multipurpose center. South Africa has accelerated its vaccination campaign a week after the discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The pandemic could be prolonged, with more variants emerging if developing countries are not given fair access to vaccines. Source: AP Photo

"Unless all countries are vaccinated as soon as possible we could see wave after wave of variants," she said.

“What is the point in developing new vaccines in 100 days if they are then only sold in limited amounts to the highest bidder, once again leaving poor nations at the back of the queue?"

She added the mistakes made in the last two years cannot be corrected, but rich countries need to forge a new way forward and insist pharmaceutical companies share science and technology with qualified manufacturers around the world.

In a new analysis, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation said 70 per cent of people in Africa need to be vaccinated by the end of next year in order for the continent to overcome the pandemic.

With Associated Press and Reuters

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