With the arrival of a new coronavirus variant called Omicron, the incompetence of so-called world leaders and the backward priorities of their system are again on full display.
Data collection is ongoing, but scientists are already concerned with a number of mutations that could make Omicron not only more transmissible than the recent Delta variant, but possibly more capable of causing severe illness and also better able to get around vaccine protection.
Soon after Omicron was first detected in Botswana, last week South Africa announced a surge in cases. Even with very minimal attempts to identify new variants worldwide, Omicron was quickly detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, Israel, and the Netherlands.
The United States, along with Britain, the European Union, Australia, Israel, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and others quickly issued travel bans from South Africa and nearby countries. Israel even went as far as closing its borders to all foreigners for 14 days after one case was confirmed there.
This policy of banning flights is a political show, not sound strategy. The top politicians of each of these governments put their nations first against the rest of the world, appealing to the nationalism or patriotism that they have always pushed. But, since the early days of the COVID pandemic, it has been obvious that this is a global crisis that demands a global solution.
Plus, Omicron had likely been spreading for weeks before any flights were banned, and other countries only first identified Omicron after South Africa announced that it was seeing a surge in cases. This is important because it means that there is inadequate effort to identify new variants in most countries.
Detecting new variants requires a special type of testing called “genomic sequencing.” But with so many daily infections in North America and Europe — areas with wealthier countries that should have the means to carry out widespread sequencing — only a very small percentage of cases are being sequenced. For example, according to the New York Times, in the last three months, Texas and Florida — two states with high rates of daily infections — sequenced only four percent of cases.
Without significantly ramped-up sequencing combined with greater efforts of screening passengers, simply banning flights is just a headline-grabbing strategy to cover up for what has been clear negligence in stopping the global spread of new variants.
In fact, this moment of being hit with a possibly more transmissible and more lethal variant was entirely predictable and highly preventable, and is the direct result of protecting the profits of drug companies rather than maximizing vaccine distribution worldwide. From the beginning, poorer countries have had very little access to vaccines. Johnson and Johnson even produced vaccines in South Africa that were shipped to Europe instead of being used for the population there. Before Omicron, the Delta variant was identified in India, when health professionals there were practically begging the Biden administration to release the patents on the vaccines so other countries could produce their own. But the Biden administration refused, letting Delta spread across the world, bringing about a new wave of infections that has been worse than those prior.
And still very little has changed. About 7.8 billion doses of the COVID vaccine have been given worldwide, enough for everyone on the planet to have at least one dose. But only about 43% of the global population is fully vaccinated, and only 5.8% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.
In Africa, only 10 percent of the population has received one dose of a vaccine, compared with 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe. In South Africa, less than 24% of the population has been fully vaccinated. But in the U.S., millions of people have already received a third dose while millions of doses have been thrown away because they don’t get used in time.
Some countries have received vaccines without any assistance to help with storage and distribution. And so, the vaccines often expire before they reach people who need them. In Uganda, millions of doses are at risk of expiring by the end of the year.
In the words of Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, “Told you so … It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing.”
He’s right: the rulers of the most powerful countries have learned nothing, and choose to continuously ignore reality. The longer countries like the U.S. protect the profits of the drug companies and delay vaccinating the rest of the world, the more time the coronavirus has to mutate and cause another surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Once again, this pandemic continues to remind us that their system cannot keep us safe. It is not just the virus that has killed over 5 million people — it is their system that is killing us.