For nearly a year now, global health experts have issued a stern warning to Canada and other wealthy countries: make sure COVID-19 vaccines reach the poorest corners of the world – or new variants of coronavirus will inevitably emerge.
Today, with the arrival of the Omicron variant, that prediction has come true. Omicron has now been confirmed in a dozen countries around the world, including Canada. Two cases were reported by the Ontario government on Sunday, involving people in Ottawa who recently traveled to Nigeria.
While the exact origins of the variant may never be known, it seems almost certain that it appeared in a region with low vaccination rates, possibly Africa, where only 7% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Over the weekend, it became increasingly clear that the emergence of Omicron will cause economic damage around the world. After a first wave of countries banning travelers from southern Africa last week, several governments have started to extend their border closures.
Israel has banned the entry of foreigners for the next two weeks; Morocco suspended its international flights for two weeks; and Switzerland has imposed a 10-day quarantine on travelers from Britain, the Netherlands and several other countries.
Omicron, first detected in South Africa and Botswana last week, has been described as the most complex and significant variant to date. It has around 50 mutations, including more than 30 in the spike protein, which coronaviruses use to enter human cells.
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Scientists warn that it could be more transmissible than other variants, and there is a risk that vaccines will be less effective against it. Both issues are urgently addressed as governments attempt to understand the extent of the threat.
A growing number of scientists and health analysts are warning that travel bans are unlikely to be effective against the variant, which has now been identified in 10 countries outside Africa. A more equitable distribution of vaccines would have been a better preventive measure, they say.
“Until there is a more coordinated global vaccine strategy and a cohesive global response to the pandemic, we will continue to see variants,” said Donna Patterson, a professor at Delaware State University who studies health issues. and pharmaceuticals in Africa.
“There has to be more equity in vaccines,” she told The Globe and Mail. “By the time the travel bans are instituted, as we see with Omicron, the variant has already migrated. “
Michael Head, a global health researcher at the University of Southampton, said the emergence of new variants has shown that “the hoarding of surplus vaccines by the richer countries will inevitably spill over to all of us at some point.” .
More and more politicians and civil servants are coming to the same conclusion. “The failure to create a truly global vaccine plan has allowed new variants to flourish and spread,” Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, said in a tweet on Sunday, accompanied by a map. which showed the poor distribution of vaccines in Africa. .
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a televised address to the country on Sunday evening, sharply criticized the travel bans that have been imposed on his country and its neighbors, denouncing them as unscientific and ineffective.
He specifically named Canada and other countries that had imposed the bans. “These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminatory,” he said. “The only thing the travel ban will do will be further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic. “
South Africa has long warned the world that uneven vaccine distribution will not only cost lives and jobs in low-income countries, but threaten the global effort to overcome the pandemic, Ramaphosa said.
“The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue,” he said. “Until everyone is vaccinated, we should expect more variants to emerge. “
Many wealthy countries around the world, including Canada, ordered many more doses of the vaccine than needed in the first few months of the pandemic, using their financial strength to take the lead. expectation and making it difficult for low-income countries to compete. Provisions.
African countries have been trying to order vaccines since last December, but major manufacturers have prioritized their wealthier customers or their domestic markets.
Even South Africa, one of Africa’s largest economies, has struggled to find supplies. She first ordered AstraZeneca vaccines from the nonprofit COVAX program and the Serum Institute of India. But he abandoned the plan when AstraZeneca proved ineffective against milder forms of the beta variant, which was circulating in the country at the time.
Then the COVAX program was weakened when the Serum Institute focused on the domestic market in India, depriving COVAX of vital supplies.
Another manufacturer, Moderna, has refused to sell its vaccines in South Africa. And a third manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, has been hugely delayed in the African market. South Africa placed a large order with Johnson & Johnson in February but did not receive a significant number of doses until September.
The country has been forced to rely largely on Pfizer’s more expensive vaccine doses. Due to the delays, only 24% of South Africans are fully immunized.
The solution, according to most global health experts, is to increase vaccine production in developing countries. South Africa and India proposed in October 2020 that the World Trade Organization allow a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 products, including vaccines. The proposal is now supported by more than 100 countries, but has been blocked by a handful of rich countries, mainly in Europe.
The WTO was due to discuss the waiver proposal at a high-level ministerial conference in Geneva this week. But the conference has been postponed – due to travel bans and quarantine rules imposed by Switzerland and other European countries due to the new variant.
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