Concerning new COVID variant spotlights dangers of vaccine apartheid

Concerning new COVID variant spotlights dangers of vaccine apartheid
HONOLULU, Hawaii - Lt. Col. Ronald Cole, Public Health Command-Pacific's Human Health Services director and a public health nurse, receives the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Tripler Army Medical Center, Honolulu, on Dec. 23, 2020. The inoculation was part of the Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration plan that is a phased, standardized and coordinated strategy for prioritizing, distributing, and administering COVID-19 vaccines to protect DoD personnel, maintain readiness, and support the national COVID-19 response.
The detection of an unusual—and potentially more contagious—Covid-19 variant is intensifying fears that denying vaccines to large swaths of the world's population could allow the coronavirus to mutate unabated, prolonging the pandemic indefinitely and adding to the staggering global death toll.
While the highly infectious Delta strain remains the dominant mutation around the world, the Jerusalem Post reported over the weekend that a variant known as B.1.640 has drawn the attention of experts "because there are changes to the coronavirus spike protein that have never been seen before."

The strain has thus far been detected in several European countries as well as on the largely unvaccinated African continent, where scientists say the strain may have originated.

"This lineage has a large number of recent sequences in France and the Congo with additional sequences in Switzerland, Italy, the U.K., and the USA," virologist Tom Peacock noted on Twitter.

Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, Bar-Ilan University Professor Cyrille Cohen warned that "this variant exemplifies that if you leave some of the world's population without access to vaccines, then the virus will continue to multiply and it will lead to more variants."

"Not giving vaccines to these countries may seem OK in the short term, but in the long term we might have new variants that are problematic that developed in unvaccinated countries," said Cohen. "I don't want to frighten people. There are just a few cases of B.1.640 now and it could very well be that in a month we could all forget about this variant."

"But it is an example of what could happen if there isn't access to vaccines for everyone," he added.

The World Health Organization is currently monitoring six coronavirus mutations that have been detected around the world, often emanating from countries—including India, Brazil, and South Africa—that have struggled to vaccinate their populations due to artificial shortages of doses or key materials.

While some middle- and low-income countries have ramped up their vaccination campaigns in recent months, much of Africa and other developing regions across the globe remain almost entirely without access to lifesaving shots.

"Less than 6% of the population in African states is vaccinated against coronavirus," notes a report published last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). "In many countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, and Tanzania, vaccination rates are even lower (at only around 1%), with little prospect of these picking up any time soon."

The report continues:

The cause of such low vaccination rates is well-known: despite recent improvements, global production continues to lag behind demand, with developing countries facing long delays in accessing vaccines. Meanwhile, global solidarity is ineffective; so far, COVAX has shipped only around 400 million doses of vaccines globally (compared with an initial target of delivering 1.9 billion doses in 2021). Donations from richer countries are also failing to materialize; as [of] late October, developed countries had delivered only 43 million doses of vaccines (out of pledges totaling about 400 million—which is still far below needs).

In a speech last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that "nearly 80 countries, half of them in Africa, will not reach our 40% vaccination target" by the end of the year.

"Countries with the highest vaccine coverage continue to stockpile more vaccines, while low-income countries continue to wait," Tedros said. "Every day, there are six times more boosters administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries. This is a scandal that must stop now."

Deeply unequal access to vaccines—often dubbed "vaccine apartheid" by public health campaigners and the leaders of vulnerable countries—is a major reason the coronavirus is still killing an average of 7,000 people each day. Our World in Data estimates that 7.5 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, but just 4.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot.

In the face of such persistent inequities, the leaders of rich countries are facing growing pressure to force pharmaceutical companies to share vaccine recipes with manufacturers around the world, a move proponents say is necessary to quickly increase regional production and distribution.

Thus far, pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Pfizer—profiting immensely from their government-granted monopolies—have refused to voluntarily share their technology with developing countries.

Vox's Umair Irfan argued last week that the massive and persistent vaccination gap "isn't just a humanitarian crisis, it's a global threat to the fragile progress already made in the pandemic."

"The longer the pandemic rages," Irfan wrote, "the greater the chances of a dangerous mutation in the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, which could then spread around the world."

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