Vaccine equality - now | Sunday Observer

Vaccine equality - now

5 December, 2021

The much-dreaded Omicron variant was detected in Sri Lanka on Friday, from a local traveller who had returned from South Africa, which first detected the new strain. This does not imply that the new variant originated there – rather, South Africa’s advanced genomic sequencing laboratories were able to isolate and identify it with remarkable speed. Omicron has now spread at lightning speed to various countries as did its predecessor Delta, still the world’s dominant Coronavirus variant.

The jury is still out on whether Omicron is more lethal or contagious, but it has got many more mutations than all the previous variants including Delta. It could also be more resistant to the current crop of World Health Organization (WHO)-approved vaccines. This could make it the most dangerous variant yet discovered. Sri Lanka should brace itself for more Omicron cases from both local and foreign travellers who had been to Africa. A word of caution here – some are calling for the closure of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in the light of the discovery here of the new variant. But blanket airport closures and travel bans on specific countries (in this case South Africa and several other African countries) are almost completely ineffective - as we have experienced, the virus finds a way to infect people, regardless of the location and restrictions imposed to curb its spread.

As the South African President and African scientists have pointed out, slapping travel bans to “punish” Africa for originating or reporting the Omicron variant is downright unfair. For almost one year, the United Nations and the WHO have been warning affluent countries in the West that their decision to hoard vaccines and stifle efforts at distributing them among the less affluent countries could come back to haunt them. And now it has, as the Omicron variant has been reported in many countries of the Global North.

Writing in The Guardian last week, former British Prime Minister and Global Vaccine Equality campaigner Gordon Brown highlighted how the world could easily have prevented the birth of another variant if rich countries had distributed vaccines among their less privileged partners. “With 9.1 bn vaccines already manufactured and 12 bn expected by the year’s end – enough to vaccinate the whole world – this was the “arms race” that we could have won. Two billion doses of vaccine are being manufactured every month. No country should be facing yet another winter with the uncertainty of a new wave of Covid hanging over us.”

The stranglehold exercised by the G20 richest countries is such that they have monopolised 89 percent of vaccines, and even now, 71 percent of future deliveries are scheduled for them. More than 500 mn unused vaccines are available across the G7. Covid vaccine hoarding should actually be classified as a crime against humanity. Some countries have ordered or stockpiled enough vaccines to inoculate their populations many times over. Some other rich others are throwing away perfectly good vaccine doses that are nearing their use-by dates.

On the other hand, the situation in many Asian, South American and African countries (the Global South) is dire in terms of vaccination. Vaccination rates in six African countries now subject to Western travel bans are still dangerously below the 40 percent vaccination target for 92 of the poorest countries that was set for December. In Zimbabwe, only 25 percent have had a first vaccine and just 19 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In Lesotho and Eswatini, which have had the Johnson and Johnson single-shot vaccines, just 27 percent and 22 percent respectively have been vaccinated. In Namibia the figure is even lower: 14 percent vaccinated with only 12 percent fully vaccinated. While South Africa has achieved a 27 percent vaccination rate, its rural areas are often reporting single figures.

The 40 percent target for the 92 countries was announced at a summit chaired by US President Joe Biden. Two and a half months on, there is little chance of this target being met in at least 82 of them. The result is that only three percent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, while the figure exceeds 60 percent in both high-income countries and upper-middle-income countries. Every day, for every vaccine delivered as first vaccines in the poorest countries, six times as many doses are being administered as third and booster vaccines in the richest parts of the world. This vaccine inequality is the main reason why the WHO is predicting 200 million more cases on top of the 260 million so far. And after five million deaths due to Covid, another five million are thought to be possible in the next year. All this can easily be prevented if only the Covid vaccines can be distributed equally.

Sri Lanka, with an enviable record of vaccination for a developing nation, must raise its voice in international forums for a more equal distribution system for Covid vaccines. And regardless of its spectacular success with vaccination, Sri Lanka should further tighten its health regulations and guidelines to prevent the mass spread of the Omicron variant. If any more lockdowns have to be imposed, the economy will suffer irreparable damage from which it will be hard to extricate ourselves. Hence, it is advisable to revisit the guidelines and make revisions where appropriate in the light of the new developments. The public should also refrain from violating the health guidelines during the festive season, so that the country could function normally in 2022 in spite of the emergence of the Omicron strain.