Omicron Variant and Vaccine Distribution

Last weekend, news emerged of a new variant of Covid-19, named B.1.1.529, or ‘Omicron,’ from the southern African regions of Botswana and South Africa. It was initially thought to have been identified amongst four vaccinated people in Botswana, suggesting that the variant may be more ‘immune’ to the vaccine than previous variants. However, since that initial discovery, it was found that people outside of southern Africa had also tested positive for the variant, which means that it most likely didn’t originate from that region. As we are in the early stages of understanding the variant, we do not yet know its full effects, and our understanding of it may change. If the variant is not completely immune to the vaccine, then it raises long-standing questions regarding global distribution of vaccines. Botswana ordered vaccines for its people months ago. However, those vaccines were given to other countries first, which were deemed ‘more important.’ After many months, they finally received vaccines but had to rely heavily on vaccine donations from other countries. If Omicron did originate here, then did this omission possibly allow for its mutation?

After Omicron’s initial discovery, South African politicians and scientists claimed that they are being punished by the rest of the world, who assume that the variant originated there because they were the first to discover it. Whilst it helped alert the world to a new covid variant, saving many lives, much of southern Africa has now seen travel bans in its regional countries. As the variant has now been detected in countries spanning five continents, the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa has called for these bans to be reversed, saying “these restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country.”

While it has been suggested that the vaccines have less efficacy against Omicron, being vaccinated would still help hinder its spread. If more people globally were vaccinated, then Covid might still have produced an Omicron variant; but vaccines do slow the spread of Covid, and in so doing, slow the speed at which it mutates. Leaving large areas of the world unvaccinated will surely lead to further mutations that would increase the likelihood of vaccine resistance. With or without Omicron, there should not be a wealth hierarchy for the distribution of the vaccine. In the initial rounds, it was distributed on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis. Instead, it should have been distributed strategically to those countries where people were most vulnerable to the virus.

Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then, it has spread all over the world, and despite the creation of a vaccine, first administered in the United Kingdom in December 2020, different mutations of the virus have meant that it has not completely disappeared. Currently, about 37% of the Botswanan population have had their first dose of the vaccine, and almost 20% are double vaccinated. Even though this is relatively high for much of Africa, compared to the rest of the world it is shockingly low. In February 2021, Botswana spent $10 million purchasing vaccines for the public, and their vaccination campaign began the month after. However, in August, the country ran out of vaccines and had to put the campaign on hold until they could obtain more. Globally, many other countries were able to purchase more vaccines, as they had been priced cheaper, and were placed first in line to receive them. Because of this, fewer Botswanans and southern Africans were able to get vaccinated.

Despite the new variant’s resistance to the vaccine, getting the vaccine still makes a difference and could stop a future mutation. While it is relatively easy for Europeans, Westerners, and citizens of rich countries to get the vaccine, its distribution has been unfair, and biased towards these nations. This has left poorer countries, mostly African nations, without enough supply, even when they have had the money to pay. In sum, the distribution inequality, leading to the lack of vaccines in areas including southern Africa, has helped with the mutation and spread of the Omicron variant. With a more vaccinated global population, Omicron may be Covid’s last major mutation.