The identification of a new COVID-19 variant has caused concern among scientists and medical professionals over the last few days. Variant B.1.1.529 appears to have a large number of mutations, and together with the apparent quick spread of this variant in South Africa, scientists are worried that this might lead to a lot more cases and a lot more deaths.
It is currently very early days in understanding this variant and how diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines cope with it. Only 100 genome sequences of the new variant have been reported so far. The situation is serious, but it will take a few weeks to fully assess the danger.
The variant was first identified in South Africa, and many have blamed vaccine nationalism for its emergence. While the richest countries are delivering third doses of the vaccine, many across the world have not even received their first. Only 5.6 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.
“I am so angry right now," Dr Ayoade Alakija, a co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told The Guardian. "Even if the moral argument didn’t work for them, if we had lost sight of our common morality, and common humanity, then even from an enlightened self-interest perspective, surely, surely, they understood that if they did not vax the world as equitably and as quickly as possible, that what we were going to see was variants springing up that we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to control,”
As the virus spreads, the likelihood of new variants increases. Since before the first vaccine against COVID-19 was approved, scientists, medical experts, and activists have been calling for equity in distribution and warned against vaccine nationalism.
"I'm afraid that this [booster recommendation] will only lead to more variants. ... And perhaps we're heading into an even more dire situation," WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan had warned back in August.
After this new variant was discovered, the call has been to increase the number of vaccines, tech, and treatments available to African nations. The World Health Organization (WHO), meeting in Geneva to discuss this new variant, asked countries to approach this possible threat scientifically and not just close borders.
"At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against," WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing, according to Reuters. "The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures."
Western countries have promptly closed their borders. If the measure was to stop the variant, it may be ineffective, given that it has already been identified in Belgium and Europe has been the epicenter of the pandemic over the course of the last several weeks.
Governments unwilling to continue public health measures or tackle vaccine misinformation have led to the worrying situation of tens of thousands of new cases per day in many European nations – and that’s despite having the highest percentage vaccinated population. Several countries have reintroduced lockdowns, in some cases exclusively for the people who refuse the vaccine like in Austria.
“For more than a year, South Africa, Botswana, and most countries have been calling for world leaders to waive intellectual property on coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments, so they can produce their own jabs,” Tim Bierley, a pharma campaigner at Global Justice Now, told The Guardian.
“It’s a vital measure that will be discussed at next week’s World Trade Organization conference. But, so far, the UK and EU have recklessly blocked it from making progress."
The pandemic is global. Until the whole world is protected, there is a serious risk that a variant might emerge that escapes detection in tests or makes vaccines and treatment less effective.