Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, seen at a COVID-19 briefing regarding the newly identified Omicron variant. Photo: WHO.
Last week, the World Health Organization announced the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant of concern: B.1.1.529, now known by its Greek name Omicron. While much is still unknown about Omicron, it’s important to remember that variants will continue to emerge without a concerted, collective, and equitable response to the pandemic.
Because the new variant contains a large number of mutations, researchers are still learning about Omicron’s transmissibility, severity, and response to current treatment and detection tools.
While the world waits on their findings, we’re already seeing why the Omicron variant is a harbinger of things to come unless we defeat this pandemic for good.
1. Omicron underscores the importance of early warning systems.
The Omicron variant is a reminder of the significance of surveillance, genomic sequencing, and early reporting mechanisms. Thanks to the Governments of South Africa and Botswana, which first detected the variant and alerted international authorities, countries across the globe have been able to share public health information to help curb infections. It’s why we must invest in regional and local surveillance systems, especially in vulnerable countries with poor public health infrastructure. 23 countries from five of six WHO regions have reported cases of Omicron to date, with more expected each day.
Blunt travel bans are ineffective and unfair, and they present massive economic and social consequences to society as a whole. Before the discovery of Omicron, the World Bank expected only 40% of developing countries to regain pre-pandemic per capita income, with nearly 100 million people falling into extreme poverty. Instead, to reduce Omicron’s risk and transmission, the world should look to layered and context-dependent public health measures such as mask wearing, physical distancing, air ventilation, and other measures proven to work against earlier strains of the virus.
2. Vaccine equity is our best exit strategy.
From the beginning, scientists have warned that the more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change, and the more mutations will be created. While vaccines are not a silver bullet to end the COVID-19 pandemic, they are the most powerful tools at our disposal for curbing the virus’s spread.
Despite unequivocal alignment and clear guidance among global public health experts, including WHO’s leadership, the world is failing to support such proven strategies and partnerships as the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), and COVAX, a risk-sharing effort by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO to deliver vital support to countries in need.
Some 670,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were donated to Cambodia by the Government of Japan under the auspices of COVAX. Photo: Nick Sells / UNICEF
This year’s $15.9 billion funding gap for COVAX, for example, means just 17% of committed COVID-19 vaccine doses have been delivered. If further study of the Omicron variant yields insight into reduced efficacy of existing vaccines, treatments, or tests, there will be even more pressure on already-strained research and development capacity, manufacturing capacity, and supply chains.
To stem the emergence of new variants like Omicron, it is essential that we continue to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments. Yet so far, promises have fallen short. The G7 nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — have collectively pledged 2 billion vaccines for lower-income nations over the next two years but have yet to produce transparent plans for delivery. Meanwhile, only 15% of the expected or secured number of doses in low-income countries are actually being delivered, according to the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR). “The vast immunization gulf between the richest and poorest countries of the world jeopardizes the health of everyone on the planet,” the Independent Panel declared in its latest report.
In October, leaders met at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to negotiate temporarily waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver was expected to be negotiated at the 12th Ministerial Conference Nov. 30-Dec. 3, but the Conference was postponed. More than 100 countries backing the waiver, including the United States, say it will help save lives by allowing developing economies to produce COVID-19 vaccines. But Germany and Switzerland, home to some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, are blocking the proposal. Despite the postponement of the Conference, countries have agreed to continue discussions.
3. The world is underinvesting in strategies to end the pandemic.
As Europe faces its fourth surge, with cases and deaths doubling in the past two months, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. This pandemic will not be defeated anywhere until it’s defeated everywhere.
Peacekeepers from China serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrol Kuda, a village 90 km west of Juba. UNMISS peacekeepers also contacted the local population and provided some health care at the local clinic in Kuda. Photo: Gregorio Cunha / UN Photo
And vaccines alone can’t get us there. WHO has been at the forefront of delivering other vital tools, such as masks, personal protective equipment, and respirators, to low- and middle-income countries. Ongoing gaps in funding, however, are threatening access. As we entered the final month of 2021, WHO’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan faced a substantial funding shortfall of 38%. This gap will endanger WHO’s ability to sustain core COVID-19 functions at both national and global levels by addressing urgent priorities such as vaccination, surveillance, and outbreak responses for countries experiencing case surges.
It’s both inefficient and unwise to tackle an evolving threat like COVID-19 without marshaling the full resources of the world — equitably — to defeat it.