Omicron is a reminder that vaccine inequality puts the world at risk

Vaxxed and alone.
Vaxxed and alone.
Image: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Since covid-19 vaccines were first released, public health experts and scientists have warned that unless until the world was vaccinated, unprotected hot spots could breed dangerous new variants. It’s a warning rich countries have largely not heeded.

The declaration of omicron as variant of concern on Friday (Nov. 25), was a stark reminder of the potential of new variants to pull the world back to pandemic conditions reminiscent of 2020, as omicron sparked a panic of border closures, jittery stock markets and renewed concerns about health impacts.

When variants emerge, countries restrict travel from other countries, even though public health experts warn such measures invariably arrive after infections have already crossed borders. The delta variant caused waves of infection beyond India despite the country being placed on travel red lists. A better policy would be a pre-emptive one—a concerted effort to reduce the number of unvaccinated people globally, giving the virus fewer opportunities to replicate and improve itself.

What is the global vaccination rate?

Vaccine access remains starkly unequal. A staggering 27 million covid-19 vaccine doses are administered each day, and about half of the world has received at least one dose, but most of them are going to citizens of high income and upper middle income countries. According to data from the World Health Organization, as of Nov. 23, 64% of people from high-income countries have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, compared to less than 8% of people from low-income nations.

Since the vaccines were first rolled out, rich countries have offered absurd or generous incentives to get their citizens vaccinated, then given them booster shots, even as the vast majority of citizens in low income and lower middle income countries have not received their first doses.

What is causing vaccine inequality?

Covax, the global initiative for rich countries to donate to poorer ones, has missed targets and rolled out slowly. Infrastructure issues and vaccine hesitancy in some countries have also limited uptake. Negotiations at the World Trade Organization, spear-headed by India and South Africa, to waive vaccine patents and allow lower income countries to manufacture generic versions of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have been deadlocked for months, due to opposition from the EU, UK and Switzerland, which host the headquarters for major vaccine manufacturers.

“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” US president Joe Biden said in a statement on Nov. 26. “This news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly,” referring to the vaccine patent waiver, which the US supports.

Yet, rich countries, including the US, are stockpiling vaccines that they are not using, exacerbating vaccine inequality. According to estimates by London-based analytics company, Airfinity, reported in NPR, 60% of the vaccines produced in the world are bought by a small group of countries: the US, UK, EU, Canada and Japan. Between a third to half of those vaccines are hoarded rather than used, with the stockpile expected to grow to an estimated 1.2 billion unused doses by the end of the year.

For now, very little is known about omicron. While the variant was first sequenced in South Africa, it doesn’t necessarily mean it emerged there, and it has been detected in a number of countries including Israel, Australia and the Netherlands. So far, the symptoms associated with it have been mild, and it could turn out to be nothing to worry about, or it may prove to shift the dynamics of how, and when, the world can reopen. Scientists, and pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and Moderna, have said they will know in a matter of weeks how effective their vaccines are against omicron.