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International check-in counters stand empty as several airlines stopped flying out of South Africa, amidst the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 28, 2021.SUMAYA HISHAM/Reuters

For almost a year now, global health experts have been issuing a stark warning to Canada and other wealthy countries: Ensure that COVID-19 vaccines reach the poorest corners of the world – or new coronavirus variants 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 Sunday, involving people in Ottawa who recently travelled to Nigeria.

While the exact origins of the variant may never be known, it seems almost certain to have emerged in a region with a low vaccination rate, probably in Africa, where only 7 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

On the weekend, it became increasingly clear that the emergence of Omicron will inflict economic damage around the world. After an initial surge of countries banning travellers from southern Africa last week, several governments have begun to expand their border closures.

Israel has banned entry by foreigners for the next two weeks; Morocco suspended international flights for two weeks; and Switzerland imposed a 10-day quarantine requirement on travellers 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 so far. It has about 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 being urgently studied as governments try to understand the extent of the threat.

A growing number of scientists and health analysts are cautioning that the travel bans are unlikely to be effective against the variant, which has now been identified in 10 countries outside Africa. Fairer distribution of vaccines would have been a better preventative measure, they say.

“Until there is a more co-ordinated global vaccine strategy and consistent global pandemic response, we will continue to see variants,” said Donna Patterson, a professor at Delaware State University who studies African health and pharmaceutical issues.

“There needs to be greater vaccine equity,” she told The Globe and Mail. “By the time 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 grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point.”

Politicians and public officials are increasingly reaching the same conclusion. “The failure to create a truly global plan for vaccines has allowed new variants to thrive and spread,” Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a tweet Sunday, accompanied by a map that showed the poor distribution of vaccines in Africa.

Low-income countries, most of them in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, have low vaccine coverage

Share of population administered at least one dose, by income group

Population

Location

Sub-Saharan Africa

1,000

million

100

Elsewhere

U.S.

UAE

High-

income

countries

Upper-

middle

Lower-

middle

China

India

Ethiopia

Low-

income

Rwanda

0

25

50

75

100%

Per cent of population vaccinated

SOURCE: REUTERS

Low-income countries, most of them in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, have low vaccine coverage

Share of population administered at least one dose, by income group

Population

Location

Sub-Saharan Africa

1,000

million

100

Elsewhere

U.S.

UAE

High-

income

countries

Upper-

middle

Lower-

middle

China

India

Ethiopia

Low-

income

Rwanda

0

25

50

75

100%

Per cent of population vaccinated

SOURCE: REUTERS

Low-income countries, most of them in the Sub-Saharan Africa region,

have low vaccine coverage

Share of population administered at least one dose, by income group

Population

Location

Sub-Saharan Africa

1,000

million

100

Elsewhere

U.S.

UAE

High-income

countries

Upper-middle

China

Lower-middle

India

Ethiopia

Rwanda

Low-income

0

25

50

75

100%

Per cent of population vaccinated

SOURCE: REUTERS

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a televised speech to the country Sunday night, sharply criticized the travel bans that have been imposed on his country and its neighbours, denouncing them as unscientific and ineffective.

He specifically named Canada and other countries that had imposed the bans. “These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate,” he said. “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.”

South Africa has long been warning the world that the unequal distribution of vaccines would not only cost lives and jobs in lower-income countries but would threaten the global effort to overcome the pandemic, Mr. 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 that more variants will emerge.”

Many of the world’s wealthy countries, including Canada, ordered far more vaccine doses than they needed in the early months of the pandemic, using their financial muscle to get to the front of the queue and making it difficult for lower-income countries to compete for supplies.

African countries have been trying to order vaccines since last December, but the major manufacturers have given priority to their richer customers or their domestic markets.

Even South Africa, one of the biggest economies in Africa, has had trouble securing supplies. It first ordered AstraZeneca vaccines from the non-profit COVAX program and from the Serum Institute of India. But it abandoned the plan when AstraZeneca was found 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 turned its focus to the domestic market in India, depriving COVAX of vital supplies.

Another manufacturer, Moderna, has declined 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 significant numbers of doses until September.

The country has been obliged to depend largely on costlier vaccine doses from Pfizer. As a result of the delays, only 24 per cent of South Africans are fully vaccinated.

The solution, according to most global health experts, is to expand the production of vaccines in developing countries. South Africa and India proposed in October, 2020, that the World Trade Organization should authorize 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 stalled by a handful of wealthy countries, primarily in Europe.

The WTO had been scheduled to discuss the waiver proposal at a high-level ministerial conference in Geneva this week. But the conference has been postponed – because of the travel bans and quarantine rules imposed by Switzerland and other European countries as a result of the new variant.

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