The announcement of a new COVID-19 variant raised alarms in several countries as members of the European Union block travel from South Africa and several other southern states.
Called Omicron, the new variant has multiple mutations raising concerns about vaccine effectiveness and increased transmissibility. But some say the new variant is further proof of the need for global vaccine equity.
Dr. Oni Blackstock responded to the announcement of European Union countries suspending travel from Southern African counties.
“Hoard vaccine, manufacture vaccine inequity, create conditions for emergence of variants, then ban and isolate,” Blackstock tweeted.
As reported by Business Insider, South Africa’s full vaccination rate is less than 25 percent. Botswana’s full vaccination rate is under 20 percent. The global average is 42 percent full vaccinated.
Experts and dozens of world leaders have been pushing for increased vaccine access for the global south, noting that the virus continued to spread and mutate. Allowing the COVID-19 virus to run amok internationally could lead to a virus that is resistant to the current vaccines.
Dr. Ingrid Katz tweeted that South Africa is owed a debt of gratitude, not punishment.
Medical experts, public health practitioners and researchers continue to stress that the new variant is identified in southern Africa doesn’t mean that is the origin point. South Africa has an advanced tracking protocol that has been able to identify the new variants, and aggressive testing and reporting have contributed to global public health.
Over a year ago, South Africa and India led the call for waivers on COVID-19 vaccine patents. The two countries called for a TRIPS waiver to allow counties within the global south to access the life-saving protocols.
A recent editorial in Science Magazine entitled “Vax the World” pointed out the widespread impact on the global economy and “disrupted” existing health systems.
“To end this pandemic, we need to be more ambitious and vaccinate the entire world,” the experts wrote. “Otherwise, it will be impossible to protect any country from the Delta variant and prevent emergence of new variants.” (Read the full editorial here).
It’s no surprise that countries in the global south have to fight for needed resources like the COVID-19 vaccines, but it’s disconcerting in a time of international crisis.
In a statement Friday, President Joe Biden called for, reiterating an early
“I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines so that these vaccines can be manufactured globally,” Biden said.
Responding to the new variant, the World Trade Organization has postponed a major in-person meeting.
Despite recognizing the need for countries like the U.S. to actively support global vaccine equity, Biden restricted travel from eight southern African countries, including South Africa. He also echoed calls for other countries to waive intellectual property protections.
“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” Biden said.