CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In a world of vaccine-rich and have-nots, the omicron variant sends a warning about how the virus can evolve and spread without more aggressive measures to expand vaccinations, a South African scientist said on Saturday. leading.
“Until we vaccinate enough people, it will happen again and again,” said Glenda Gray, head of the South African Council for Medical Research, as global health agencies raced to learn more about it. the new variant just days after its premiere. identified in South Africa.
His comments underscored one of the main challenges facing global efforts to curb the pandemic: the contrasts between wealthy countries with plentiful vaccines – and even boosters – and many poorer regions struggling to get vaccines and unable to fully distribute them.
In an opinion piece in the Guardian, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown – now an ambassador to the World Health Organization – took aim at the developed world for not delivering the doses that he had promised.
“Despite repeated warnings from health officials, our failure to get vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us,” Brown wrote.
The Geneva-based WHO has led a program to help distribute vaccines to countries in need, but significant hurdles remain to transport the vaccines and get them to remote areas.
Only 6% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are vaccinated – compared to about 59% in the United States – largely because many places in Africa have struggled to find supplies stolen by Western governments.
The slowdown in South Africa’s immunization program is also largely due to its people’s reluctance to get vaccinated, driven by apathy and a sense that “things aren’t so bad,” Gray said.
More than 35% of the country is vaccinated, according to the South African Ministry of Health. This is around half of the 67% target the country has set for 2021. (Data from Johns Hopkins University puts South Africa’s vaccination rate at around 29% with at least a dose.) Earlier this month, the South African government said it would delay delivery. Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines because fewer people were being vaccinated.
“Our problem in South Africa is that until we tackle the elephant in the room, which is low vaccination coverage, we’re never going to get ahead of the variants,” Gray said.
She also noted that it was unclear where the variant might have first appeared.
“These cases could start anywhere, especially in areas with low vaccination coverage. We know that Africa has low vaccination coverage, so it will start in countries around the world where there is no vaccination coverage,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That said, there are a lot of countries that are experiencing huge outbreaks right now.”
“Wherever it came from, it started spreading here, so people were alerted to it,” she added.
The WHO said the first confirmed omicron infection came from a sample taken on November 9. As a result, travel measures likely came too late to stop international spread, said Jeffrey V. Lazarus, professor of health systems and policy at the University of Barcelona. Institute for Global Health.
“Travel restrictions give a false sense of security,” he said, adding that it would be wiser to include strong safeguards for those traveling by air.
Gray also criticized the decision of a growing number of countries, including the United States and the European Union, to close their borders to travel from southern Africa.
“It doesn’t stop the transmission,” Gray said. “The problem is what we are not saying: that South Africa does not have good vaccination coverage, and the reason we have this problem is that we have not vaccinated enough people in the country” .
South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation has urged countries to reconsider travel bans, pointing to the damage to families and the travel and tourism industries.
The bans “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and ability to detect new variants more quickly,” the ministry said in a statement. “Scientific excellence should be applauded, not punished.”
Of the eight countries that have been targeted with travel restrictions, none have vaccinated even a third of their population – and in Malawi the vaccination rate is in the single digits, according to Our World in Data.
Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said on Twitter that the failure to help vaccinate southern Africa “has put us all at risk”.
“Omicron is an urgent reminder of why we need to do even more to immunize the world,” she said.
On social media, some public health experts were quick to point out the links between vaccine variants and inequalities.
Kizzmekia Corbett, viral immunologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, tweeted: “By the time you detect one variant, another is already circulating under the radar. And with “low uptake and inequitable access to vaccines, we will endlessly pursue variants.”
Madhukar Pai, epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal, wrote: “If you are double or triple vaccinated and worried about #Omicron, spare a thought for the over 3 billion people still waiting for their first dose. Do more than spare a thought. Advocate for Vaccine Equity!
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Chico Harlan of the Washington Post in Rome and Adela Suliman and Ellen Francis in London contributed to this report.