(CNN) – Many of the world’s richest countries have spent the past year stockpiling coronavirus vaccines, buying enough doses to vaccinate their populations multiple times, and consistently failing to deliver on their promises to share doses with developing countries. The World Health Organization said the approach was “counterproductive” and “immoral.”
And that is precisely what could be starting to play against. A new and potentially more transmissible variant of the virus likely emerged from a region with low vaccination rates.
The new variant, known as the omicron, was first identified in South Africa, although it is unclear if it originated there or was brought into the country from other parts of the region.
What scientists know is that the virus is much more likely to mutate in places where vaccination is low and transmission is high.
“It has probably arisen in another country and it has been detected in South Africa, which has very, very good genomic sequencing capacity and capacity … it could well be a consequence of an outbreak, probably in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa where there is no one. lots of genomic surveillance and the vaccination rate is low, “Michael Head, principal investigator in global health at the University of Southampton, told CNN in a telephone interview.
He also stated that the appearance of new variants was “a natural consequence of being too slow to vaccinate the world.”
“We still have large unvaccinated populations, like you have in sub-Saharan Africa, and these are susceptible to large outbreaks,” he said.
New variants of the virus that have caused problems in the past, Head added, have emerged from places that suffered from large and uncontrolled outbreaks, such as when the alpha variant was first detected in the UK last December, or the delta variant that It was initially found in India in February.
It is already spread all over the world
The omicron variant is already spread throughout the world; As of Sunday, it has been detected in several countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Canada.
Many countries around the world have reacted to the news of the new variant by quickly closing their borders to travelers from countries in the region, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
But scientists, experts and public health advocates have warned that it is likely due to the huge gap between vaccination rates in the developed and developing world.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a health research charity, said the new variant shows why the world needs to ensure more equitable access to vaccines and other public health tools.
“The new variants are a reminder, if we need it, that the pandemic is far from over,” he said on Twitter. “Inequality is what will spread the pandemic.”
There is a long way to go for an equal vaccination
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 7.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. In the eight countries most affected by omicron-related travel bans, the proportion of populations that have received at least one dose of vaccine ranges from 5.6% in Malawi to 37% in Botswana.
Meanwhile, 63.9% of people in high-income countries have received at least one injection, according to the WHO. In both the European Union and the United States, about 70% of people have received at least one injection, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. USA
While there are many reasons why a country may have a lower inoculation rate (vaccine hesitancy is still a big problem in many countries, including South Africa), Head said lack of access to doses is a problem. important.
“One contribution to this is that the richest countries accumulate doses beyond what they really need and do not comply with the commitments to donate vaccines to COVAX or directly to the countries themselves,” he said.
COVAX is the WHO global vaccine exchange program. As of last month, 537 million doses had been shipped through the plan to 144 countries; a small proportion of the 7.9 billion doses to be administered globally so far.
The WHO goal of having 40% of the population of all countries vaccinated by the end of 2021 and 70% by the middle of next year appears to be out of reach, with only two African countries, Morocco and Tunisia, currently on the way. to achieve the goal.
Writing in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday, Gordon Brown, WHO’s ambassador for global health funding and a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, said that the “failure of the world to put vaccines in the arms of the people in the The developing world is now coming back to haunt us, they were warned, and yet here we are. “
“In the absence of mass vaccination, Covid-19 is not only spreading uninhibited among unprotected people, it is mutating, with new variants emerging from the poorest countries and now threatening to break out even in fully vaccinated people in the richest countries in the world “he wrote.
Head agreed with that assessment. “He’s totally coming back to bite us … until the pandemic is resolved … and that means vaccinating every corner of the world, then it might as well recover, we saw it with delta in India.”
And Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said the rich world’s reaction to the news that South African scientists discovered a new variant was an example of their own selfishness.
“I found it disgusting and really distressing … it was not just the travel ban implemented by the UK and Europe, but that was the only reaction, or the strongest reaction.
“There was no word of support that they are going to offer African countries to help us control the pandemic and, in particular, no mention of addressing this vaccine inequality that we have warned about all year and [de la cual] now we are seeing the consequences unfold, “he told CNN.