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Omicron variant is blowback from vaccine inequality

Scientists have long warned that this would happen if large parts of the world were left unvaccinated.
Issue 2783
Medical worker holds vial of Covid-19 vaccine

Wealth and power determined who received the vaccine (Picture: US Department of Defense)

The new Covid variant now spreading from South Africa is the terrible price we will all pay for the ruling classes’ refusal to make vaccinating the world its top priority.

The new strain of the disease, which has been named “Omicron” by the World Health Organisation, is thought to be far more transmissible than even the Delta variant.

Viruses can undergo rapid change when they are allowed to spread. Every so often, a virus changes in a way that helps it to survive. And, that is what has happened in South Africa’s Gauteng province, which includes the capital of Johannesburg and Tshwane (previously known as Pretoria).

Less than a quarter of the South African population has been fully vaccinated, and among the poorest that figure is far lower.

Scientists are particularly concerned about changes to the coronavirus’s spike protein—the part that helps the virus enter human cells. Some of these mutations will also make it harder for the antibodies in our blood to recognise the virus, and could potentially mean Covid evading existing vaccines.

Virologist Tom Peacock, from Imperial College in London, described the ways in which the virus had changed as “horrific” and as having a “really awful spike mutation profile”.

But scientists have long warned that this would happen if large parts of the world were left unvaccinated. “Told you so,” said Francois Venter, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support,” he said.

Venter is right. For more than a year the World Health Organisation and others have warned that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Governments in the Global South, and South Africa in particular, begged Big Pharma and its state backers to lift patents so that vaccine production could start in poorer countries. But the European Union and Britain were among the countries that refused, insisting that mega-profits were a vital incentive for multinational firms to develop new drugs.

Poorer nations urged that instead of stockpiling jabs in the West, supplies should be sent urgently to those most at risk of developing new Covid strains. But their pleas met a negative response.

And, the much vaunted UN Covax programme—which Western governments proclaimed as the way to vaccinate the Global South—has failed to deliver the 2 billion doses it promised by the end of this year.

The only “solutions” that Britain and other Western governments have offered is to slam closed the door to people from South Africa, and to reinstate some of the most minimal Covid protections.

Everyone knows that cutting travel connections will buy Britain only days or weeks before mass outbreaks of Omicron happen here. There are already cases in Britain, so the ending of flights is purely cosmetic.

“You close down the boundary with Africa, then you close the boundary with Belgium, then you close the boundary with somewhere else,” said Alessandro Vespignani, a Northeastern University professor. “But every time you close it, it’s a little late.”

Tory health secretary Sajid Javid was at pains to say on Sunday that the government was “nowhere near” imposing new restrictions in Britain, such as asking people to work from home where possible. He was, however, forced to order the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday this week.

Javid said the changes were “temporary” and that people should plan for “Christmas as normal”. That’s a dangerous attitude.

We face a new form of the virus that can more easily infect others and may well be able to bypass the vaccinations of even those who have had three jabs.

And, yet the health secretary thinks it is just fine to cram as many generations of your family into a cramped room for at least a whole day.

There can be few ways more easily guaranteed to spread the virus, and lead to hospitalisation and death.

Profiteering and the bosses’ narrow self-interest first created the conditions for Covid to spread and mutate into more dangerous forms.

Now, they and their Tory friends’ only response is to demand the cash registers keep ringing up sales, and business as usual continues in our schools and workplaces

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