As fears mount over the newly identified coronavirus variant Omicron, governments around the world are scrambling to protect their citizens. Many of the world’s richest countries have spent the past year hoarding more than enough coronavirus vaccines, reports CNN.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said late on Friday that early evidence suggests the Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, could pose an increased risk of reinfection and said that some of the mutations detected on the variant were concerning.
“This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, said in a statement on Friday.
But while WHO designated the Omicron a “variant of concern” on Friday, it stressed that more research is needed to determine whether the variant is more contagious, whether it causes more severe disease, and whether it could evade vaccines.
Stocking up of Covid Vaccine
Many of the world’s richest countries have spent the past year hoarding coronavirus vaccines, buying up enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times over and consistently failing to deliver on their promises to share doses with the developing world.
Low vaccination rates
It might be starting to bite. A new and potentially more transmissible variant of the virus likely emerged from a region with low vaccination rates.
What scientists do know is that the virus is much more likely to mutate in places where vaccination is low and transmission high.
Head said the emergence of new variants was “a natural consequence of being too slow to vaccinate the world.”
“We still have large unvaccinated populations, like we have across sub-Saharan Africa, and these are susceptible to big outbreaks,” he said.
New variants of the virus that have caused problems in the past, Head added, have all emerged from places that experienced big, uncontrolled outbreaks, such as when the Alpha variant was first detected in the UK last December, or the Delta variant that was first found in India in February.
The pandemic is far from over
Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, a health research charity, said the new variant shows why the world needs to ensure more equitable access to vaccines and other public health tools.
“New variants are a reminder, if we needed it, that the pandemic is far from over,” he said on Twitter. “Inequity is what will extend the pandemic.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 7.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Across the eight countries most affected by the travel bans related to the
Meanwhile, 63.9% of people in high-income countries have received at least one shot, according to WHO. In both the European Union and the United States, around 70% of people have received at least one shot, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Consequences of vaccine shortage
Writing in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday, Gordon Brown, WHO’s ambassador for global health financing and former UK Prime Minister, said that the world’s “failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned and yet here we are.”
“In the absence of mass vaccination, Covid is not only spreading uninhibited among unprotected people but is mutating, with new variants emerging out of the poorest countries and now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people in the richest countries of the world,” he wrote.
And Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said the reaction of the rich world to the news that South African scientists discovered a new variant was an example of its own selfishness.
“What I found disgusting and really distressing … was not just the travel ban being implemented by the UK and Europe but that that was the only reaction, or the strongest reaction.”
“There was no word of support that they’re going to offer to African countries to help us control the pandemic and particularly no mention of addressing this vaccine inequity that we have been warning about all year and [of which] we are now seeing the consequences play out,” he told CNN.
Australia has banned the entry of foreigners who have traveled to nine southern African countries in the past 14 days, including South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, South Korea has imposed restrictions on travelers from eight southern African countries, its Disease Control and Prevention Agency announced Saturday.
Foreign nationals traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique are banned from entering South Korea, the agency said. The issuing of visas for nationals from those countries has been suspended until further notice, it added.
Korean nationals entering from those countries must quarantine in a government-designated facility for 10 days.
The top infectious disease expert in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also said it was possible the new variant was already in his country but was yet to be detected.
Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC Saturday, “I would not be surprised if it is [in the US], we have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re having travel-related cases they’ve noted in other places already, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is going to go all over.”
Israel is banning all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears, authorities announced Saturday. The ban, pending government approval, is expected to last two weeks. Israelis returning from a country on the red list, which includes countries in southern Africa, will be required to isolate for seven days in a designated hotel.
The French government extended its suspension of flights from seven southern African countries on Sunday. The ban was scheduled to be in place until midnight on Sunday evening but was extended to midnight Tuesday evening.
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