CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Across a world of vaccine haves and have-nots, the omicron variant sends a warning on how the virus can evolve and spread without more aggressive measures to expand vaccinations, a top South African scientist said Saturday.
“Until we vaccinate enough people we’re going to have this happen over and over again,” said Glenda Gray, head the South African Medical Research Council, as global health agencies rushed to understand more about the new variant just days after it was first identified in South Africa.
Her comments underscored one of the major challenges facing global efforts to curb the pandemic: the contrasts between wealthy nations with plentiful vaccines - and even booster shots - and many poorer regions struggling to get vaccines and unable to fully distribute them.
In an opinion piece in the Guardian, former British prime minister Gordon Brown - now an ambassador with the World Health Organization - took aim at the developed world for failing to deliver donated doses it had promised.
“Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us,” Brown wrote.
The Geneva-based WHO has led a program to help distribute vaccines to nations in need, but significant hurdles remain in transporting the vaccines and having them reach remote areas.
Just 6% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are vaccinated - compared with about 59% in the United States - largely because many places in Africa have struggled to find supplies snatched up by Western governments.
South Africa’s slowing vaccination program also is largely due to a reluctance by its population to get the jab, driven by apathy and the feeling that “things aren’t so bad,” said Gray.
More than 35% of the country is vaccinated, according to South Africa’s Department of Health. That’s roughly half of the 67% target the country set for 2021. (Data from Johns Hopkins University puts South Africa’s vaccine rate at about 29% with at least one dose.)Earlier this month, the South African government said it would delay the delivery of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines because fewer people were being vaccinated.
“Our problem in South Africa is that until we tackle the elephant in the room, which is the low vaccine coverage, we are never going to get ahead of the variants,” said Gray.
She noted, too, it was hard to know where the variant might have first emerged.
“These cases could start anywhere, especially in areas with low vaccine coverage. We know that Africa has low vaccine coverage, so it will start in countries in the world where there is no vaccine coverage,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That said, there are a lot of countries that are having huge outbreaks at the moment.”
“Wherever it came from, it started to propagate here, so people were alerted to it,” she added.
The WHO said the first confirmed omicron infection came from a specimen collected Nov. 9. As a result, the travel measures have probably come too late to stop the international spread, said Jeffrey V. Lazarus, a health systems and policy professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.
“Travel restrictions give a false sense of security,” he said, adding that it would be wiser to include strong safeguards for those traveling by air.
Gray also slammed the decision by a growing number of nations, including the United States and the European Union, to close their borders to travel from southern Africa.
“It doesn’t stop transmission,” Gray said. “The problem is what we are not saying: thatSouth Africa does not have good vaccine coverage, and the reason we have this problem is because we have not vaccinated enough people in the country.”
South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Ministry urged countries to reconsider travel bans, pointing out the damage caused to families and the travel and tourism industries.
The bans are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the ministry said in a statement. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”
Among the eight countries that have been targeted with travel restrictions, none has vaccinated even one-third of its population - and in Malawi, the immunization rate is in the single digits, according to Our World in Data.
Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said on Twitter that the failure to help vaccinate southern Africa “left us all exposed to risk.”
“Omicron is an urgent reminder of why we need to do even more to vaccinate the world,” she said.
On social media, some public health experts were quick to point out connections between variants and vaccine inequities.
Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tweeted: “By the time you detect one variant another is already circulating under the radar.” And with “low vaccine uptake, inequitable vaccine access we will be chasing variants endlessly.”
Madhukar Pai, an epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal, wrote: “If you are double or triple vaccinated and are worried about #Omicron, spare a thought for the 3+ billion people who are still waiting for their first dose. Do more than spare a thought. Advocate for vaccine equity!”
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The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan in Rome and Adela Suliman and Ellen Francis in London contributed to this report.