The unequal sharing of Covid vaccines globally is likely to lead to more variants like Omicron emerging, the international affairs thinktank Chatham House is warning.
“The emergence of a new Covid-19 variant with all its myriad mutations – on this occasion from South Africa – is not unexpected,” said Dr Osman Dar, the project director of Chatham House’s One Health Project and a specialist in public health and the control of communicable diseases.
What it highlights are the continuing and fundamental risks to everyone associated with not seriously addressing the inequalities still at play globally in the fight against disease and poor health.
Mutations will continue to surface, as will in all likelihood other infectious viruses with pandemic potential. This latest variant – rapidly detected thanks to South Africa’s relatively advanced genomic sequencing capability and willingness to engage with international partners and collaborating agencies – has for South Africa resulted in a series of travel bans restricting their citizens and impediments to international trade.
African states will pay the price of travel bans which are implemented to try to contain the spread of Omicron, while drug companies will benefit from the search for modified vaccines, he added.
Movement restrictions, including international travel bans do clearly slow and limit the spread of infectious disease, and as is the case is with the current pandemic, allow countries the time and breathing space to prepare medical countermeasures as well as adapt strategies to control local outbreaks.
While for drug and vaccine manufacturers, largely based in the global north, it represents the firing of a start-gun in the next race for market share and profit as they test whether their currently licensed IP-protected vaccines will be effective and whether or not a new, modified vaccine is necessary.
So in effect, a low/middle income nation – along with the continent it sits in – is economically penalised, socially ostracised and socio-politically stigmatised for demonstrating global solidarity and doing the right thing through their timely reporting and sharing of the variant’s genetic data. Meanwhile, a small group of hugely wealthy pharmaceutical companies find new opportunities to generate exorbitant profits as fear starts to once again grip politicians and the wider public.
What’s necessary, therefore, to limit the negative socioeconomic impacts of these restrictive measures on trade and travel, is to have a sufficiently resourced global regime in place. This should support countries reporting new variants through the significant financial and social hardships that then ensue – a disaster or pandemic fund specifically engineered around the impacts of trade and travel restrictions.