MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — Scientists in South Africa discovered a new COVID-19 variant of concern called Omicron in samples from November 14-16, 2021. After only a week, several countries across the globe have detected the variant and are imposing new restrictions, especially on travel. South Africa, where scientists detected the variant, and Botswana, where the variant originated, have very low vaccination rates. With higher than the average vaccination rates for Africa, South Africa’s 26% and Botswana’s 41% rate of full vaccination as of December 2021 are a cause for concern. The reason for Africa’s low vaccination rate is largely rooted in vaccine inequalities and vaccine nationalism, which has left low-income countries vulnerable to virus mutations like Omicron.
What is Vaccine Nationalism?
In the early stages of vaccine development, scientists worried about an equitable global vaccine rollout. As vaccines were getting approved, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union began to order and stockpile excess doses just in case. First and second-dose vaccinations have slowed down in the United States due to vaccine hesitancy and booster shots have ramped up as people become eligible and want more protection. Unfortunately, many people in high-income countries have received booster shots before most Africans even receive their first dose.
While high-income countries stockpile vaccines, low-income countries are left with no access and the virus can run rampant. As seen with Omicron and previously with Delta, COVID-19 variants affect not only the countries where they originate but the whole world. Omicron is affecting the United States along with countries on every continent. The variant has the potential to disrupt travel and the global economy with delays.
The global response to the Omicron discovery has been rapid and strict. Many nations closed their borders to travelers from African countries where Omicron is prevalent and ramped up testing and other restrictions to travelers from elsewhere. However, WHO has criticized the rest of the world for instating travel bans.
COVAX: Tackling Vaccine Inequalities
To address vaccine inequalities, in 2020 WHO and Gavi Alliance joined forces to create the COVAX Initiative. COVAX aims to provide low and middle-income countries with vaccines needed to end the “acute phase” of the pandemic. COVAX has seen mixed results due to supply chain issues. Because of this, donations from high-income nations are the main supplier of vaccines for the COVAX initiatives. However, they are not coming fast enough or in large enough quantities.
Another issue is the lack of infrastructure in Africa to carry out vaccinations. Many African nations, especially extreme lower-income regions, do not have the cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine. Others are suffering from health care staffing shortages.
Despite this, COVAX committed to ramping up vaccine distribution in 2022 as more countries make donation pledges. WHO has also called for new standards that would ensure that vaccines are donated predictably, with an appropriate shelf life and with the necessary supplies like syringes. Moderna is working with COVAX to potentially donate hundreds of millions of Moderna doses to the COVAX initiative. Meanwhile, the U.S. is working to expand vaccine manufacturing in the developing world. In November 2021, the U.S. promised “to donate at least 1.1 billion doses to foreign countries.”
A Long Term Solution
The issue of vaccine manufacturing in the developing world is not new. In June 2021, the United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the World Bank declared a joint plan to invest in Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity. As of right now, Africa “imports 99% of its vaccines.” With this investment, a South African company will be able to “produce more than 500 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the end of 2022.”
The expansion of vaccine manufacturing to Africa will benefit economies in the region and public health. Moreover, producing vaccines nearby ensures the sustainability of their supply, eliminating the problems that arise with vaccine donations.
Scientists still do not know whether current vaccines are effective against the Omicron variant and whether the variant is more dangerous than previous ones. However, they know that unvaccinated regions are breeding grounds for new variants to emerge. Therefore, failures to vaccinate the developing world contribute to the continuation of the pandemic.
As high-income nations work with initiatives like COVAX to ramp up vaccine availability and manufacturing in low-income nations and end vaccine inequalities, those nations could tackle the virus and its variants once and for all.
– Emma Tkacz