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Sunday, 23 January 2022

The Omicron variant

The Omicron variant
James Denselow
Whilst in many countries Covid has dropped down the news agenda in recent weeks, the sudden and shocking arrival of the Omicron variant has put it right back at the top of the agenda. The announcement by South African medics of a new strain of the virus that looked to contain record levels of mutation and could therefore combine increased transmissibility with the ability to evade vaccines has seen rapid policy decisions across the planet.

Indeed, the muscle memory of States has meant that whilst much is unknown about the new variant, they were willing to make drastic decisions incredibly quickly without much in the way of backlash. For some this meant closing their borders (again) to foreign visitors, for others it meant restarting track and trace systems and reimposing rules around face coverings.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has already warned that Omicron is linked to high risk of infection surges that could have "severe consequences" in some places. Although we won’t know how vaccine resistant it is for several weeks even countries with high vaccine take up are preparing for the worst and a significant step back in the fight against the virus, something reflected when some $75bn was taken off the value of global stocks.

Anecdotal evidence from figures inside South African is more positive. The chair of the South African Medical Association said Omicron has so far caused ‘very mild symptoms’ in patients, with no noticeable impact on hospitals despite the country being ‘the epicentre’ of the new variant. The South Africans are understandably disappointed that their quick work on discovering the variant has seen them isolated as countries have adopted travel bans. As the WHO have said this “current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores”.

Reporting variants is one issue, a bigger one is the more predictable one that whilst political leaders have repeated the mantra that “we’re not safe until we’re all safe”, their actions when it comes to ensure global vaccine distribution leave a massive gap between rhetoric and reality that Omicron has slammed right into the middle of. Former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been a constant champion of better sharing of vaccine supply to avoid potentially dangerous variants to emerge. His take on the news from South African is that a new Covid variant is no surprise when rich countries are hoarding vaccines.

Despite 12bn vaccines scheduled to be manufactured by the end of the year – enough to vaccinate the whole world - only 3% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, while the figure exceeds 60% in both high-income countries and upper-middle-income countries. Whilst rich countries see ‘anti-vaxxers’ peddle conspiracy theories about the vaccines, poorer countries have no such luxury and with obvious predictability are therefore far more likely to be the source of variants without the firefighting impact of vaccines on hand.

If, and as ever with Covid it is a big “if”, Omicron sets back the vaccine and assorted Covid efforts that have already cost the world some $17 trillion, then the rhetoric towards a global, not national effort, has to been urgently met with resourcing to avoid a repetitive loop that makes the virus inescapable. However, we must recognise that short term national focused efforts make total sense from the perspective of many policy makers and that to avoid the ‘easy but wrong’ fallacy global rather than national targets around the vaccine must be followed.

There is a question as to whether the WHO is the readymade and natural body to pick this effort up. Yet I would argue that the global strategic importance and cost – in lives as well as resource – of Covid means that the UN Security Council should look to grasp the vaccine effort and treat it much like they would in building a multinational coalition to win a conventional conflict. Governments and political leaders, not unaccountable technocrats, must be the ones who own a global effort as otherwise the attention and focus with invariably drop as we’ve seen in the last few months.

Countries like America and the UK have got to a stage in their vaccine effort where they feel their population is protected and can thus open up. These countries have missed the horizon effort and Omicron has exposed that already even if we don’t fully know the ins and outs of how it works. Omicron is a huge wake up call for the global Covid response in that it has exposed how truly un-global it is at present.

James Denselow, James Denselow

by: James Denselow