Failure to vaccinate the world against coronavirus created the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of the Omicron variant and should serve as a wake-up call to wealthy nations, campaigners have said.
Scientists and global health experts have called for action since the summer to tackle the crisis of vaccine inequality between rich and poor countries. The longer large parts of the world remained unvaccinated, they said, the more likely the virus was to mutate significantly.
The emergence of such a variant threatens to derail efforts to end the pandemic. The World Health Organization says the heavily mutated Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that may have severe consequences in some places.
“Omicron is with us because we have failed to vaccinate the world,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAids and co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a campaign group. “This should be a wake-up call.
“Business as usual has led to huge profits for pharmaceutical firms, but many people left unvaccinated means that this virus continues to mutate. It is the definition of madness to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. We need to press reset.”
The warning comes as new figures released by the People’s Vaccine Alliance show that the number of booster or third jabs administered in the UK is about the same as the total number of fully vaccinated people across all of the world’s poorest countries.
The UK has reached the milestone of 20m booster vaccines or third doses administered days after ministers announced a significant expansion of the programme to every adult in the country. At the same time, according to Our World In Data figures cited by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, only 20 million people across all the 27 countries classified as low-income nations by the World Bank had been fully vaccinated.
“With the new threat of the Omicron variant, it is clear that we cannot just booster our way out of the pandemic while leaving much of the developing world behind,” said Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam, which is one of about 80 organisations in the People’s Vaccine Alliance. “Unless all countries are vaccinated as soon as possible we could see wave after wave of variants.
“We cannot correct the mistakes of the past 21 months but we need rich countries to chart a new path forward in which they step up and insist the pharmaceutical companies start sharing their science and technology with qualified manufacturers around the world, so we can vaccinate people in all countries and finally end the pandemic.”
Tony Blair said the “failure to organise mass vaccination globally has been a huge problem right throughout this crisis”.
The former UK prime minister told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: “Well it’s always been very obvious that if you don’t vaccinate the world, this is a virus that can mutate. If you’ve got large populations that are unvaccinated, it’s likely to mutate faster and further.”