Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday November 30, 2021
Omicron: A variant born of vaccine inequity
The emergence of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is a giant I-told-you-so moment for the world.
It should strike home particularly hard in rich countries like Canada, which have lavished resources on vaccinating their own people while leaving poorer parts of the world to struggle along as best they can.
Now, the inevitable is happening: with the vast majority of people in most countries still unvaccinated, the virus has mutated yet again. Omicron is the result, and we can only hope it turns out not to be as formidable a foe as some experts fear.
Banning flights from a handful of countries where the variant was first detected may be a natural reaction, but it’s no real answer. Omicron has already been detected in a number of other countries, and we know by now that once these things start they can’t be effectively stopped. At best, restricting travel might slow the spread a bit and give scientists time to learn more.
The bigger lesson is one that the developed world already knows, but hasn’t really wanted to take on board. It’s summed up in the oft-repeated cliché that “none of us is safe until all of us are safe.” In practice, it means much more must be done to boost vaccination rates in all countries, not just the ones (including Canada) that have procured the lion’s share of doses for their own people.
By now the developed world is awash in vaccines. We have more doses than we have arms to put them in; the data analytics firm Airfinity estimates there will be more than a billion such doses stockpiled in developed countries by the end of the year, in addition to those earmarked for donations to poorer nations.
So while some countries have 70 per cent or more of their people protected, the World Health Organization estimates lower-income countries have on average only about 7.5 per cent. That leaves literally billions of people around the world unvaccinated, giving the COVID-19 virus ample opportunity to mutate — and bite us back in the form of Omicron.
Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is now the WHO’s ambassador for global health financing, notes that G20 countries have taken 89 per cent of COVID vaccines so far and 71 per cent of future production is still scheduled for them. “The problem is not now in production (two billion doses of vaccine are being manufactured every month),” he wrote over the weekend, “but in the unfairness of distribution.”
Of course, developed countries have pledged to deliver billions of doses to the rest of the world, but actual shipments have so far fallen far short of those promises. Canada has pledged to donate at least 200 million doses by the end of next year, but that doesn’t address the problems of here and now.
There’s a moral issue involved, but there’s also naked self-interest. Omicron is proof that focusing excessively on our own backyard leaves us vulnerable to dangers from elsewhere. We can’t wall ourselves off from COVID, much as we’d like to.
Canada and other developed countries need to work harder to accelerate their promised deliveries of vaccine doses to poorer nations. And they should support efforts through the WHO for a temporary waiver of patent protections for COVID vaccines to make it easier to ramp up production around the world.
If we fail on this, we’ll be grappling with yet more variants down the road. It’s not as if no one warned us this might happen. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)