Why the Omicron variant is not a penalty for vaccination inequality

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You’ve heard it many times during the pandemic: no one is safe until everyone is safe. Large unvaccinated populations in poor countries contract covid-19. It is inevitable that the virus will go on to move and spread back to the rich world. So the rich world should give vaccines to poor countries, lest they become breeding grounds for new dangerous variants.

On the face of it, the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa earlier this month is proof that these arguments were correct. Only 23% of South Africans over the age of 12 are fully immunised. In neighboring Botswana, one of the many countries where Omicron may have originated, the figure is 18%. In sub-Saharan Africa 116m doses of vaccine were given, compared to 611m in the European Union, which has a population less than half the size. The moral is clear: if Omicron turns out to be deadly, the rich world will be punished for its selfishness.

Of course Omicron shows how dubious this claim is. By sequencing the genomes of variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid, scientists can build an ancestral tree, called a cladogram, which traces the clustering of mutations to the original identified coronavirus first in Wuhan in late 2019. see table). Trevor Bedford, a pathologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has shown that Omicron started in early 2020, before Delta came on the scene. Since then it has been unknown and, until now, it has not spread.

There are three possible explanations for this. The virus that became Omicron may have been in an isolated population that had recently re-established contact with the outside world. It may have jumped into an animal and back out again. Or, most likely, he lived for a long time in the body of someone who was under the influence of immunity, where he had time to accumulate large collections of mutations, some of which are good at escaping from antibodies, locking on cells human and viral injection. genome into them.

All these definitions cast a shadow on the safe person / everyone safe. To see why, consider that covid is on its way to becoming an endemic disease. Reluctance means that countries are unable to vaccinate all their populations, sometimes by a large margin. Even people who are protected by vaccination or previous infection can be susceptible to COVID – thankfully, their cases are usually mild. Some of them can spread the virus.

The result is that as the disease spreads, everyone on Earth will be exposed to covid sooner or later and not just once, but often. One thing you can be sure of is that given enough time, covid will reach Omega. That’s because there will always be outliers. The virus will occasionally jump into animals. People with weakened immune systems get infected.

Vaccination can reduce the frequency of these events. What is not clear, but the EU has fully vaccinated 79% of people over the age of 12 and cases are still running at 2.5m a week. In contrast, South Africa has 3m registered cases in the entire pandemic. Although that is certainly a rough estimate, there is a lot of virus circulating in the EU – and moving.

You can see why people accept the idea that no one is safe/everyone is safe. They want vaccines to be widely available, but fear that calls for altruism will fall on deaf ears in rich countries. So they make the case for “vaccine fairness” using an appeal to self-interest.

However, no matter how well-intentioned, confusing arguments can seem very manipulative and sanctimonious, undermining the very cause they are designed to support. The best argument for why the rich world should share its vaccines is simpler and more powerful. Vaccines cost a few dollars. They save lives. They are becoming abundant and soon they will be in surplus. The rich world should give them to the poor world because that is the right thing to do.

To read more coverage of the Omicron revolution, visit our collection of recent stories.

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