The sudden emergence of the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus did not come as a surprise to health experts who have warned against the perils of lagging efforts to vaccinate 70 percent of the world population.
With large swaths of the planet still unvaccinated almost two years since the pandemic struck, the rise of more variants has become inevitable. While it seems, based on initial reports from South Africa, that Omicron could be more transmissible than the Delta variant, it’s not certain if it’s more dangerous.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in its latest report, said the Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries but no resulting deaths have yet been reported. South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed its quick spread – with only a few hundred cases in mid-November, 3,402 cases were reported on Nov. 26. Five days later, the number of cases jumped to 8,561.
While some might find Omicron’s high transmissibility but with no death sort of good news, in the thought that it speeds up the process of acquiring natural herd immunity, the WHO said the overall global risk “is assessed as very high” with its “unprecedented number of spike mutations.”
“Increasing cases, regardless of a change in severity, may pose overwhelming demands on healthcare systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality. The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage,” it said.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the emergence of Omicron shows how “hard-won gains could vanish in an instant” as the vaccine crises continues with low-income countries receiving just 0.6 percent of the world’s COVID vaccines while developed countries got 80 percent.
But the problem lies not only in the availability of much-needed vaccines. Many underdeveloped countries that do not have robust public health systems are having difficulties absorbing and administering donated vaccines.
In what is deemed as failure in what public health experts call “vaccination readiness,” many countries lack the staff, infrastructure, and funds to administer the vaccines and actually inject them into the arms of the people after crates of vaccines are dumped on airport tarmacs.
The so-called “tarmac-to-arm” costs in many low-income countries have been scrutinized by CARE, the global humanitarian agency, which found out in its study last July that in Sudan, for instance, “there was an additional $22 cost for each person vaccinated – six times more expensive than global estimates.”
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) said that “weak leadership, coordination, planning, and accountability at [a] global level” is hindering global vaccination. It acknowledged that to reach 70 percent vaccination coverage worldwide, “up to $10 billion from the global community is needed to support vaccine delivery and administration in low- to middle-income countries.”
Of the global $10 billion needed to cover operational costs in administering the vaccines and getting them to people in low-income countries, USAID said the US government needs to invest $2.5 billion. While the Biden administration has not finalized its funding commitment, a White House spokesperson said “it is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity.”
The world’s richest G7 industrialized nations and other developed countries that gobbled up at least 3.1 billion doses of vaccines that were yet in the process of manufacture at the start of the pandemic must help poor nations in getting access to vaccines and ensuring it is administered properly and not wasted after it is delivered in airport tarmacs.
The WHO chief is right when he said that “no country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic alone.” Rich countries must help out poor countries if the world is to beat the pandemic. Indeed, “no region, no country, no community and no individual is safe until we are all safe.”
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