The Omicron variant

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

If the developing nations continue not to be allowed to produce vaccines against Covid-19, events such as the spread of the new Omicron variant may well occur more often, writes Mahmoud Mohieldin

Epidemic diseases are at the top of the list of disruptors that can throw people’s lives into havoc and force them to change their way of life. Two years after it first appeared in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus is now celebrating its anniversary with another variant, which first appeared in South Africa. 

Omicron, as it has been called, comes hot on the heels of the Delta variant of the virus, which was discovered in India in December last year. It now poses a further threat to global health, stability and economic development.

Many cases of infection with the new variant have already been found outside of Africa in Asia, Europe and Canada. At the time of writing, no cases have been reported in the US. However, US President Joe Biden has acknowledged that it is only a matter of time before Omicron makes its way there. But, although this is a source of concern, he has also urged Americans not to panic. “We’re going to fight and beat this new variant,” he said, following a meeting with his team of infectious-disease experts headed by Chief Medical Adviser Antoni Fauci. 

According to Fauci, the vaccines that are already available against Covid-19 should provide sufficient protection to people who are fully vaccinated. He said that within a week or two scientists will have sufficient information to determine the severity of the new variant of the virus. He urged the public to observe the usual guidelines and precautions, stressing that all those who were unvaccinated should get vaccinated and that those who are eligible for boosters should get boosted. He also urged parents to get their children vaccinated.

Fauci would have had in mind a major obstacle to the vaccination drive and the containment of the disease. Many people in Europe and the US are reluctant to get vaccinated because they lack confidence in science or because they believe in herd immunity as an alternative to vaccination. Many may simply refuse to obey regulations and precautionary measures that they see as infringements upon their personal freedoms and their right to control their bodies. 

Fauci and his team have come under attack, especially from Republican Party politicians in the southern states of the US, for his adamancy that all adults should get vaccinated. A humorist writing for the US magazine the New Yorker put the following response into Fauci’s mouth, saying that “a ‘troubling variant of stupidity’ has been identified in Texas, Dr Anthony Fauci has confirmed. ‘What’s concerning about this variant is that it appears to have developed immunity to all information, of the many mutations of stupidity found in Texas, this one stands out. ’”

As fierce as the debate over vaccination is, it is primarily unfolding in the West, where people have the luxury of choice. Ultimately, vaccinations are available through their healthcare systems, should they choose to use them. This brings us to a second problem, namely the inequitable distribution of vaccines around the world. 

In an article that appeared last week in the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, former British prime minister Gordon Brown and the UK’s World Health Organisation (WHO) ambassador for global health financing, acknowledged the international community’s failure to put vaccines in the arms of people in the developing world. This, he said, “is now coming back to haunt us. 

Although some 12 billion vaccine doses will have been produced by the end of this year, 95 per cent of adults in the world’s poorest nations still do not have access to them because the rich countries are hoarding them. More than 80 low and middle-income nations have been unable to achieve the hoped-for 40 per cent vaccination target. 

I have repeatedly warned that this would be the case, ever since November 2020 when scientists succeeded in developing effective vaccines in record time. No sooner had science prevailed in developing the vaccines than the world’s sometimes feeble political will receded in the face of the greed of countries having them. Some 100 million doses of the vaccines will have passed their validity dates by the end of the year, going to waste despite the needs of countless millions in the countries that do not have them. 

Unsurprisingly, the gap between the rich and poor nations continues to widen with regard to the production and acquisition of vaccines. As Brown put it, “the stranglehold exercised by the G20 group of richest countries is such that they have monopolised 89 per cent of vaccines, and even now, 71 per cent of future deliveries are scheduled for them.” 

Meanwhile, according to WHO figures, less than seven per cent of adults in Africa have received the vaccine. The gap between word and deed is equally vast. The US has only met 22 per cent of its pledged donations, while the EU has performed even worse, having met only 15 per cent of them. 

Even as the WHO meets this week to discuss a proposed treaty to promote international coordination in the prevention of epidemics and the accelerated response to them, only a short distance away in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) it is still impossible to overcome the resistance to a temporary easing of the restrictions that protect intellectual property rights in connection with Covid-19 vaccine research, development and production. 

The world has lost precious time since the former US Trump administration and other Western governments opposed South Africa’s and India’s application in October 2020 for exemptions from the regulations. When 60 developing nations joined South Africa and India to submit another application in May this year, they still could not get the US and Europe to budge on any easing up of restrictions. 

How is it possible to rise to the universally recognised need to facilitate the production of vaccines in the developing nations that have the necessary facilities, when the Western nations despite their promises continue to dig in their heels against the obvious measures required?

Surely the logic is straightforward. Either the developing nations get the facilities and resources for producing and distributing the vaccines as quickly as possible, thereby becoming part of the solution. Or they become part of the problem by becoming areas of contagion and havens for new variants of the virus that cannot be brought quickly under control. 

Delta was not the first variant of the Covid-19, and it looks like Omicron will not be the last.

*An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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