Barely three weeks after it was first identified in South Africa, the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is now on the verge of ruining what everyone assumed would be a relatively normal holiday season.
The variant is moving at lightning speed. Britain has been overrun by it. The United States is seeing a frightening post-Thanksgiving rise in cases that is likely to be made worse as Omicron takes hold there.
In Canada, Omicron is being linked to a rapid spike in new cases. Modelling released by Ontario on Thursday suggested the province could see 10,000 cases a day by next week.
Omicron is testing the ability of Ottawa and the provinces to rapidly deliver the millions of vaccinations and booster shots, and to bring back unpopular but critical circuit-breaking measures, needed to hold back a bug whose transmissibility is exceptionally high.
The mutated virus is doing something else, too. It is demonstrating with utter clarity the need for wealthier countries to ensure that poorer countries, many of which are starved for vaccines, get the doses their people need.
According to the World Health Organization, the world’s COVID-19 vaccine gap is enormous. As of the end of October, high-income countries had administered 133 doses for every 100 people, while poorer ones had only administered 4 doses per 100 people.
A low level of vaccination has a number of consequences, the most obvious being that people in poorer countries have little to no protection from the coronavirus. And that’s not just bad for their health; it could also have serious consequences for the entire planet.
South Africa first identified the Omicron variant on Nov. 24. By the end of this week, Omicron was in more than 50 countries. Questions remain about its severity, but it is without doubt exacerbating COVID-19 surges everywhere.
Tellingly, South Africa has a low vaccination rate. As of Thursday, only 26 per cent of its eligible population was double jabbed, compared with more than 80 per cent in Canada.
Over all, more than half the world’s population has yet to receive a single dose of vaccine; only 58 per cent has had one dose. At the end of September, there were 56 countries – mostly in Africa and the Middle East – that hadn’t reached the WHO’s goal of vaccinating just 10 per cent of their populations by that time.
In all, only 7.5 per cent of people in low-income countries have received one dose.
Does this matter to wealthy countries such as Canada? It should. Viruses mutate all the time. SARS-CoV-2 is no exception, and the more often it can replicate in human hosts, the greater the chance it will mutate into something more transmissible and harder to stop. That’s how we got Omicron.
Vaccines reduce the replication of the virus, thereby reducing the odds of a mutation. And in a highly vaccinated population like Canada’s, if a new mutation surfaces, it will have a harder time gaining a foothold.
But not so among the billions of people around the world who are unvaccinated. As long as the vaccine gap persists, the greater the chance of mutations taking hold.
The World Health Organization has spent the past year calling on wealthy countries to step up vaccine production and provide financial assistance for poorer countries. It’s partly a moral question related to the right of every person to be vaccinated, but it’s also sound policy and enlightened self-interest for countries trying to keep their own citizens safe.
The WHO estimates the current worldwide vaccine manufacturing capacity is 1.5 billion doses a month. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations expects total output to have reached 24 billion doses by mid-2022 – more than enough to double vaccinate the entire planet.
Canada itself should start to be a manufacturer of vaccines some time in 2022, if all goes as expected.
To date, this country has done the right thing by buying as many vaccines as possible and getting them into as many people as possible.
Canada still has a long way to go, especially with the Omicron surge and the need to deliver booster shots. However, it’s now clear that focusing only on home is not enough. Any wealthy country that fails to help make vaccines available in poorer countries is only doing half the job – while undermining its own best interests.
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