Omicron shows need for more global vaccine advocacy

Above is a map of countries with confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 identified in red. Countries with more cases appear in dark red. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) received a report from South Africa that a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, known as Omicron, was detected. The WHO designated the variant as a “variant of concern,” mostly due to certain mutations which may confer a degree of resistance against existing treatments and vaccinations. This terrifying new development in the COVID-19 saga is just another reason why the world needs to work together to ensure every single person has access to vaccines, instead of just stockpiling them in rich countries. 

With the recent news, scientists are still unsure about whether the new mutations in the variant are of consequence, but Omicron is already starting to spread within a few countries (CNN, 2021). Because of mutations located in the spike protein of the virus, which has been the target of most major vaccines currently being used to prevent COVID-19 infection, it is possible that the mutations mean the Omicron variant is more infectious than its predecessors, including the Delta variant. 

The number of Omicron cases grows daily, and the number of countries in which the variant has already been detected is following a similar trend. Public officials in the United States, among other countries, blocked foreign travellers from South Africa and neighboring countries in response. South Africa has since alleged they are being punished for discovering Omicron instead of being applauded.

The truth of the matter is that one of the reasons that a new variant has cropped up is because of significantly lower vaccination rates in Africa. Only about 35 percent of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated (Washington Post, 2021). But this does not indicate that Omicron originated in South Africa. Since South Africa and its neighboring countries previously held low case numbers, the country had relaxed restrictions. It is possible that the variant actually originated in another nearby country, but just happened to be detected in South Africa first.

Although it is still uncertain how much damage this variant can cause, initial scientific reports seem to show a higher transmissibility rate than the Delta variant, and a greater number of infections usually results in more complications and deaths (CNN, 2021). The rise of this variant—and other future variants—can be avoided with widespread vaccination. Vaccine inequality has been an unfortunate reality worldwide since vaccines first became available. Many doses are hoarded by wealthier countries, leaving poorer countries struggling to procure enough doses to protect their populations against COVID-19. But, as Omicron shows, hoarding vaccines in wealthier countries will be futile in ending the pandemic globally if largely unvaccinated populations can move without restrictions. Large numbers of unvaccinated people, such as those present in many African countries where vaccination rates are low because of unavailability, will have higher viral transmission. And where there are higher transmission rates, there exists a much higher risk of new mutations arising in the virus. While most of these mutations will be inconsequential, some of them can be extremely dangerous––as we already witnessed with the Delta variant, currently the most dominant strain of the virus worldwide.

The most effective way to prevent the virus from mutating into uncontainable forms is through vaccination. This is very hard to carry out in underdeveloped countries that lack access to vaccines, but this is almost entirely the fault of a few rich countries worldwide, including the United States which currently holds about 500 million excess doses alone. By the end of 2021, about 10 rich countries are projected to have 1.2 billion excess doses of vaccines, with 1.06 billion of them not being used for donations to poorer countries (Al Jazeera, 2021). Although almost eight billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed worldwide, these doses are heavily skewed towards rich countries that have a surplus (Bloomberg, 2021). In some countries, including the United States, many people have had two or three doses of the vaccines before many people in underdeveloped countries, specifically those in Africa, have even had one dose.

In addressing a global pandemic, it does not do any good to stockpile preventative medicine in those countries that can afford it, and to ignore those that cannot. The nature of viruses, and specifically COVID-19 with its ever-mutating physiology, is such that they will always try to find a population amongst which they can grow and multiply. And when they grow and multiply, errors commonly occur. These errors, as we have seen with the Delta variant, eventually affect everyone, and disarm even the most advanced of medicines. The cause of rising mutations must be addressed at its root, and the easiest way to do that is by sharing in the scientific wealth we are blessed with. For the world to avoid another deadly wave of COVID-19, propelled by the rising Omicron variant, rich countries must immediately share their stockpiles of vaccines. This is the only way we can even begin to think of a world after COVID. 

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