The Omicron Wakeup Call

It is only a fully vaccinated and united world that can stem Covid-19 and thus be better prepared to aptly counter and overcome the next pandemic

By Mrinal Roy

Delivering the Richard Dimbleby lecture this week, Dame Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, who is one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, warned that the next pandemic could be even more lethal than Covid-19. The world must therefore learn from the array of mistakes made during the management of the Covid-19 pandemic and elaborate a global response plan to better counter and stem a future pandemic. She said: ‘This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse and could be more contagious or more lethal or both.’

The latest Omicron variant has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the world’s Covid-19 response strategy. Despite the fact that very few scientific data were available to determine the precise severity of the Omicron variant, a wave of panic spread over the world as more and more countries from Europe to India, China, Indonesia, Australia, the United States, Canada and Brazil banned flights from and closed their borders with South Africa and seven other countries in southern Africa, namely Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Eswatini (Swaziland), Malawi and Lesotho deemed as a high-risk region as well as countries where the Omicron variant has been detected. Across the world counties are closing their drawbridges to protect themselves. For a few days, even Mauritius became the collateral victim of this paranoia.

Vaccine access divide

The most decried aspect of the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been that the world has failed to provide equal and equitable access to coronavirus vaccines to all countries. Despite the fact that in a record-breaking public health achievement, more than 7 billion doses of vaccines have so far been administered, the vaccination rate in some countries is less than 10 percent. The world is now divided in two. Thus, a number of countries whose adults are fully vaccinated are receiving their booster doses while vaccines are being administered to children as young as 5 years old. In contrast, people in a majority of countries are left vulnerable with very little or no vaccines to protect themselves against Covid-19 and its deadly variants.

In the race and scramble for vaccines, developing and poor countries have been sidelined and basically left out. There is therefore a chronic lack of vaccines, treatments and adequate healthcare in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Every day, about 10,000 people die because of the pandemic. What are the world leaders of the major countries of the world who have the power and authority to change this appalling situation waiting for to take the necessary actions to remedy this deplorable state of affairs?

The world must also realize that no country can return to a modicum of normality as it continuously remains at risk of a surge of infection from a new Covid-19 variant in a context when the majority of countries in the world continue to be denied access to the vaccines required to protect their population and contain the spread of the virus.

The discovery and ownership rights of lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines and treatment drugs by pharmaceutical corporations in a few developed countries have been responsible for the patently unequal access to vaccines in the world. In a situation of pandemic, which has already caused more than 5 million deaths in the world, the priority should be to save lives instead of safeguarding the billions of dollars of profits that can be amassed from these path breaking discoveries. This is a time for world solidarity, sharing and concerted global actions to save lives and urgently stem the coronavirus pandemic.

Jolting reminder

The Omicron variant is a jolting reminder that the world will only be able to overcome and stem Covid-19 if we vaccinate and eliminate the virus from the whole world. The longer the world is divided into the countries that have access to vaccines and those that do not, the longer the pandemic will drag on with the risk that deadlier new variants could develop causing more deaths and distress in the world.

The Omicron variant is therefore a timely warning to the world that despite the financial resources to buy all the vaccines required and a high rate of vaccination, no country is safe from a new variant emerging from countries which largely do not have access to vaccines and are mostly unvaccinated. We can only win the battle against the pandemic when all countries of the world are provided with the required vaccines to vaccinate their population and the treatment drugs necessary and are united to fight the pandemic together as one.

Change tack

It is not too late for the world to change tack and overhaul its fundamentally flawed Covid-19 response strategy. The most important bottlenecks in the world’s battle to overcome the pandemic are availability and access to vaccines. There are not enough vaccines being produced to meet global demand in order to fully vaccinate all the eligible world population. However, what is particularly galling is that despite the blatantly unequal access to vaccines, rich countries have ring fenced according to a People’s Vaccine Alliance report, issued last October, an inordinately large volume of vaccines compared to the real vaccine requirements of their population. Shouldn’t they immediately redistribute their excess vaccines well before these doses expire to low and middle-income countries whose vaccination coverage lag behind?

More importantly, governments in countries where pharmaceutical corporations have discovered Covid-19 vaccines approved by WHO and have intellectual property rights to produce them must endorse the TRIPS Waiver supported by more than 100 countries at the World Trade Organization and share the know-how to produce Covid-19 treatment drugs so as to enable the production of vaccines and treatment drugs in approved production facilities according to rigorous quality norms in locations in the world closer to the demand for vaccines and drugs in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It is only a decentralized production of vaccines in agreement with the pharmaceutical corporations which hold intellectual property rights that we can boost production to satisfy world demand for vaccines and overcome the logistical and distribution challenges of delivering the vaccines requirements of countries across the world which have received scant or no vaccines.

It is also evident that the emphasis put on vaccines and vaccination programmes as the panacea to stop the pandemic has overshadowed research carried out to establish treatment protocols covering the various stages of Covid-19 infection using low cost and easily available medicine. It is therefore imperative to codify a treatment dashboard to beef up the arsenal of measures available to stem the pandemic,

United

Omicron is therefore a timely wake up call for the world to urgently recast its Covid-19 response strategy to ensure that the whole world and in particular the developing and poor countries are fully vaccinated at the earliest as it is only a fully vaccinated and united world that can stem Covid-19 and thus be better prepared to aptly counter and overcome the next pandemic.


* Published in print edition on 10 December 2021

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