Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, is spreading fast. With ten times the mutations in the spike protein compared to the Delta variant (which can be attributed to two lockdowns and at its peak 1,600 deaths a day in the UK), this one poses a real danger of spreading quickly and dodging antibodies. We now have to ask ourselves: Was this truly inevitable?
For South Africa, where the variant was first reported and where the media has focused on, it took until the end of May to get the first dose to 1% of their population, 5 months after the UK had achieved this. Currently, 24% of their population is fully vaccinated while the UK has fully vaccinated 69% of its people. However, while much of the reporting has focused on South Africa for this variant, the virus was first identified in Botswana, where the country has struggled even more with vaccination, with only 20% of their population fully vaccinated. So what is going on?
While there are issues with vaccine hesitancy, many scientists have called on governments to share vaccine doses with less well-off countries who struggle to bid for doses and commit to large sums of money. There are reasons for this beyond philanthropy. If we don’t eradicate COVID-19 worldwide, not just in our country, we will then see variants arise from countries that are less widely vaccinated than us. These variants can be more transmissible and could even dodge vaccines, as is suspected with Omicron. It is therefore in all countries’ best interests to help others, but have they?
COVAX is a vaccine distribution programme aimed at providing vaccines to the developing world where distribution is more challenging and money is tighter. The UK has pledged 100 million doses to COVAX, as of the 22nd of October only 6.2 million of these had been delivered (as of this writing). The USA pledged 800 million, but by the 22nd of October only 100 million of these had been delivered. It has also been reported that Botswana was charged $29 per dose for 500,000 Moderna vaccines, 14% more than the EU that was charged at $25.50. Far less than 10% of these doses have arrived despite the agreement being reached 6 months ago in June. In September, South Africa donated 50,000 doses to Botswana while struggling to vaccinate their own citizens. Why are they having to fit the bill while we carry out booster doses?
So what is with this slow delivery? It appears we are great at vaccinating our own country; the majority of the UK is double vaccinated with over 18 million booster doses distributed and all over 18s becoming eligible to receive one. While data shows boosters provide a great benefit to immunity, should we not be ensuring all citizens of the world have had their first dose before we get our third dose of protection? Are we prioritising more and more vaccines for ourselves when really, we should be helping other nations get up to speed so their citizens don’t suffer and variants don’t emerge that may dodge vaccines and come back to haunt us?