Omicron version seen as an outspoken call to vaccinate the globe

In the nearly year since vaccines for COVID-19 first became available, several leading health officials have urged To help rich countries and vaccine manufacturing companies prevent troublesome new forms from emerging, the priority is to vaccinate people in poor Southern Hemisphere countries.

Since then, vaccines have become readily available in the United States, Western Europe, and other developed regions of the world. But in Africa, where the new Omicron coronavirus variant was first detected in recent days, vaccines are extremely difficult to come by and only 7% of the population is fully vaccinated, compared to 42% of the global population and 58% of the United States. Is. ,

“With this level of vaccine disparity, Omicron-like variants are completely predictable,” said Matthew Kavanagh, director of the Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative at the O’Neill Institute in Georgetown. “Boosters and travel restrictions will not protect Americans. Until we fix vaccine inequalities, we will continue to live in fear.”

On Friday, World Health Organization experts classified Omicron as the group’s most severe category of “anxiety type.”

Scientists caution against drawing conclusions about the variant’s capabilities too quickly: According to Tim Shacker, deputy dean of research at the University of Minnesota Medical School, it will take days or even weeks for researchers to run tests and look at the data.

Nevertheless, the WHO declaration is significant: the “type of concern” label is usually reserved for people with mutations that could potentially make the virus more contagious or virulent, or make defenses such as vaccination less effective. .

Some previous variants have not lived up to the initial alarm. But the oomicron variant has more than 50 mutations, more than half of them being the spike proteins of viruses, major targets of vaccines and subsequent antibodies. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who served on President Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board during his transition to office, called it “definitely much, much more than”. [the] delta” variant, which now accounts for nearly all COVID-19 cases in the United States.

“Of all the variants we’ve seen to date, this is probably the biggest public health concern for us,” he said. β€œIt may evade some or all of the immunity we have from past infections and vaccines. We just don’t know.”

While many jabs and even boosters have significantly reduced the chances of serious illness or death for those who have benefited across the United States and much of Europe, the vast majority in the developing world remains unconvinced. The population provides more opportunities for the coronavirus to evolve into new forms. that could jeopardize the effectiveness of vaccines.

The two most populous countries in Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia, both have vaccination rates of less than 2%. Unless the rate increases dramatically, global variations will be considered inevitable.

COVAX, the WHO initiative to deliver vaccines to low-income countries, has been plagued with setbacks, including huge investments by wealthy countries and a surge in delta cases, which prevented the shots from leaving India, where many of them were manufactured and distributed. have been done. The campaign expects to supply about half a billion new doses by the end of the year, but has so far only delivered about a third of what it estimated.

Some public health experts worry about a discouraging cycle in which new variants prompt wealthy countries to order more boosters, reducing manufacturing capacity for the first and second doses needed in largely unconnected regions. Huh.

More than 60 developing countries, led by India and South Africa, have proposed to temporarily suspend vaccine patents and other intellectual property so that nations can produce their own vaccines, increasing inventories. Biden, under pressure to help vaccinate people in poor countries, has said many in the Southern Hemisphere support such exemptions. He reiterated his stance on Friday, saying Omicron “reiterates the importance of moving quickly on this.”

But drug companies and the European Union oppose such a move because they say it could discourage drug investment, and the United States has done little to advance negotiations.

“For the past year, rich countries have hoarded doses and paid high prices for boosters that will keep them safe,” Kavanaugh said, rather than focusing on global vaccination, Kavanaugh said. He pointed out that the development of a state-of-the-art vaccine given to private companies in 2020 was funded by US taxpayers and made abundant use of government research.

“It is long overdue to share this publicly funded information with the world so that Africa, Asia and Latin America can make vaccines,” he said.

Osterholm countered that although vaccine manufacturing capacity is limited, it is “not helpful or accurate” to suggest that the United States booster rollout had a great influence on Omicron’s emergence. There are other extraordinary challenges to vaccination campaigns in remote areas, including the need for refrigerated transportation, coordinated teams of health workers, and – as evidenced in rich and poor countries alike – public confidence in the effort. Comprehensive vaccination depends on both supply and demand.

“It’s not just about handing out vaccines to people,” said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at UCLA.

The United States, Britain, Australia and other wealthy nations this weekend accelerated to restrict travel from southern Africa, triggering a backlash from critics who say their vaccine hoarding contributed to the emergence in the first place. Gave.

And while travel restrictions in some cases give officials time to coordinate the public health response, they often come too late. Omicron has already been detected in places including Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel and the UK. “The cat is out of the bag,” said Rimoin.

He and other scientists credit South Africa with an impressive surveillance system that detected, analyzed and promptly reported the new version to the WHO.

“The United States would not have caught it at nearly this pace,” Osterholm said. “Those who think of South Africa as a contributor to a problem: you should be grateful.”

Once researchers know how existing vaccine formulas against Omicron stack up, the next steps will become clear. Manufacturers may need to modify the formula, and officials will need to draw up a plan for delivering new ones.

Meanwhile, public health experts urge global leaders to act on what is already clear: without more vaccines in southern Africa, the virus will leave millions of opportunities to replicate and adapt.

“I’ve been saying for months and months that the future of this pandemic will come down to two issues: weakened immunity and new versions,” Osterholm said. “What you are seeing here is that, while so many people around the world are battling this pandemic, the virus is not done with us.”

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