The rise of the Omicron variant could spell trouble for millions, particularly in regions where not all are guaranteed equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
On November 26th, the World Health Organization designated the emerging Omicron strain a “variant of concern,” motivating world leaders to close their borders to travelers from countries with surging rates of infection. Hospitals and medical centers are bracing for a winter wave as immunologists promote vaccine and booster efficacy in an urgent attempt to safeguard public health before Omicron does its damage.
As of December 5th, over 59% of US adults were fully vaccinated, and 71% had received a full dose, but above average statistics are not commonplace in some COVID hotspots where vaccine inequality poses a substantial threat to thousands. In fact, some scientists argue that countries without equitable access to vaccines can actually be breeding grounds for new variants as contagion gives way to virus mutation.
According to the United Nations, enough vaccines will be produced in 2021 to cover 70 percent of the global population, but wealthy nations are still the first to benefit. Many developed nations with the science and resources to produce their own vaccines regularly restrict the export of additional doses to ensure that native citizens are inoculated first, a common trend throughout the COVID pandemic known as “vaccine nationalism.”
The United States recently took this concept one step further, offering booster doses to citizens while facing criticism from global health organizations for inadequate vaccine exports to countries like Brazil, where fatal cases outpace rates in every other COVID hotspot globally.
In November 2021, COVID-19 vaccines became the United States’ fifth most valuable export, ranking just behind aircraft, gasoline, natural gas, and oil, at an estimated per person distribution cost of $3.70, according to UNICEF. For some low-income countries, annual health expenditures can’t support herd immunization, leaving thousands of citizens without necessary protection while COVID and its variants rapidly intensify.
While richer nations are tallying high rates of immunizations, under-developed countries are reporting shockingly low statistics without much-needed support from their global counterparts. According to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, just 8% of people in low-income countries have received a vaccine, but some regions are trailing even further behind.
As the Northern hemisphere dominates vaccine supply, underprotected and largely marginalized regions like southern Africa are seeing the prolonged effects of the pandemic with high rates of transmission and a meager share of COVID shots. Lacking proper protection from the novel coronavirus, Africa recently became the birthing ground of the Omicron variant, much like India with the Delta variant in December 2020.
Worst of all, Omicron’s spike protein is reported to have over 30 mutations, making the evolved virus even more transmissible. Omicron hotspots without vaccines or strong healthcare systems could quickly become uncontrollable and threaten the wellbeing of native citizens and national neighbors alike.
As new cases of the Omicron variant trickle into nearly 40 different countries, its origins reveal the grave consequences of vaccine inequality around the world. Until all people are protected, none of us truly are, and until vaccine equality becomes status quo, we have a long way to go.