Dangerous Omicron variant shows why global vaccination matters

Despite repeated warnings from the WHO, rich countries have continued chasing after vaccines while poor- and middle-income countries are left behind.

  A health worker talks to people as they wait to register next to the Transvaco coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine train, after South Africa's rail company Transnet turned the train into a COVID-19 vaccination center on rails to help the government speed up its vaccine rollout in the country (photo credit: REUTERS/ SIPHIWE SIBEKO)
A health worker talks to people as they wait to register next to the Transvaco coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine train, after South Africa's rail company Transnet turned the train into a COVID-19 vaccination center on rails to help the government speed up its vaccine rollout in the country
(photo credit: REUTERS/ SIPHIWE SIBEKO)

The dangerous COVID-19 Omicron variant that originated in Africa should serve as a wake-up call when it comes to the need to vaccinate the entire globe, some health experts have said.

No one is safe until everyone is safe when it comes to the pandemic, the World Health Organization has repeatedly stressed. Yet rich countries have continued chasing after vaccines while poor- and middle-income countries are left behind.

“Those that are left behind can actually drive the pandemic forward,” said Dr. Dorit Nitzan, European regional emergency director for the WHO. “The virus will not go away in any way, shape or form and we will not find a way to live alongside the virus.

“Being a good Samaritan is the right way to do things in general, but there is something above and beyond it: the health security of humanity as a whole,” she said.

The Omicron variant “is an unfortunate punishment for not thinking of the poor people that do not have vaccines,” said Prof. Dan Turner, deputy director-general for research and development and innovation at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

 Empty Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine vials for children aged 5-11 are seen in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, US, November 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH BEIER) Empty Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine vials for children aged 5-11 are seen in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, US, November 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH BEIER)

December will mark one year since the world launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign. A report put out earlier this month by the Economist Intelligence Unit highlighted that whereas nearly eight billion vaccine shots have been administered, only negligible numbers have been used to inoculate the citizens of most developing countries.

Specifically, according to The New York Times vaccine tracker, only 0.7% of doses have been administered in low-income countries.

So, whereas 99% of citizens of the United Arab Emirates, 80% of Canadians and 65% of Israelis are fully vaccinated, in countries like Chad, the Congo and Haiti, less than 1% are.

The virus replicates randomly and there are millions if not billions of variants circulating all the time. But most of the variants are genetic mutations that actually cause the virus to be less effective and therefore they simply fade away. However, once in a while, a variant that is more powerful than its predecessor develops.

“Just like Darwin’s theory, it will be stronger than the other variants and then rapidly it will dominate,” Turner explained. “The likelihood of getting such a more powerful variant increases when the virus replicates more – when it infects more people.

“When you have populations in the world that are not vaccinated, this will create variants that will very quickly invade all countries and then even the vaccines will not help us,” he said. “We need to ensure the butter is spread more evenly on the bread.”

In other words, the Omicron variant is a reminder that no country is alone in the world and that essential resources – including vaccines – should belong to everyone. It should also raise a red flag in a country like Israel, nudging leaders to ask themselves why 50% of citizens have received a third shot when less than 6% of the population in African states have been inoculated.

To help facilitate equitable access to and distribution of COVID vaccines, the WHO has partnered with UNICEF, GAVI – the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to create the COVAX Global Vaccine Facility.

The WHO has also made a global recommendation that initial vaccination should prioritize groups at highest risk of exposure to infection and those most likely to develop severe disease.

But the program and its recommendation have been less effective than the WHO had hoped.

COVAX has shipped only around 400 million doses of vaccines globally, The Economist report stated – significantly less than the 1.9 billion doses it hoped to provide this year.

“As of late October, developed countries had delivered only 43 million doses of vaccines, out of pledges totaling about 400 million, which is still far below needs,” the report explained.

Moreover, places like Africa face additional difficulties, such as lack of transportation connections, cold-chain infrastructure and healthcare personnel to administer the shots, as well as elevated levels of vaccine hesitancy.

“Every third vaccine that saves one life [in Israel] would have saved 10 if it was given to someone as a first vaccine,” Turner claimed. “Is our life 10 times more valued than the lives of other groups?

He agreed that Israel was correct to roll out a booster shot campaign, as nearly all recent studies point to the waning of the Pfizer vaccine at around six months. The booster campaign rapidly brought down infection in Israel, allowing the country to keep the economy open and saving lives.

“I don’t expect the government to give up vaccines and donate them to people who don’t have them,” he said. “But what effort has our government made to try to ensure that others have vaccines as well?”

One of the options would be for Israel to purchase additional vaccines and donate them to COVAX. Another would be to join parts of the international community in their press to require COVID-19 vaccine developers to share their intellectual property through the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool to allow more countries to manufacture these life-saving doses.

“Only in 2020, Moderna and Pfizer will profit $53 billion just from COVID vaccines,” Turner said. “They profit so much and that is good, but isn’t it time now to say you got enough in 2020 and now we need to think about other people as well?”

The Omicron variant is not the first new COVID-19 strain to set off global alarms. And without vaccine equality, it will not be the last.

Ensuring global distribution must be as high a priority for world leaders as the production of an antidote.

The pandemic must teach the world the lessons of solidarity and global responsibility. As Turner said, countries should “stop just thinking about themselves and start thinking globally.”