- A new variant of coronavirus was found in southern Africa. Experts worry it could be the worst so far.
- Researcher had warned that a dangerous new variant could emerge if there is no global vaccine access.
- They said all countries need vaccines before wealthy people get boosters. Rich nations did not listen.
When coronavirus vaccines were produced, approved and rolled out, health experts said the doses needed to reach around the world, not just to the richest countries.
This was necessary, they said, to reduce the number of deaths and serious illness in poorer nations and to protect their populations.
They also pointed to another reason: the more the virus spreads, the more likely it is to mutate and result in a strain that could become more dangerous to everyone, including those vaccinated.
A worrying variant found
A new variant, dubbed B.1.1.529, has mostly been identified in Botswana and South Africa, as well as Hong Kong, where it was imported by a traveler.
A relatively small number of cases have been detected so far, but the variant has spread rapidly, officials said.
—Tulio de Oliveira (@Tuliodna) November 25, 2021
Experts describe B.1.1.529 as worrying and point to its high number of mutations – meaning it could make existing antibodies, vaccines and treatments less effective, as Insiders Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reported.
Researchers are currently trying to figure out if it is more contagious, or more deadly, or both.
Many experts already say it is the worst variant they have seen since the pandemic began.
It is not clear exactly where the new variant developed. It could have been in South Africa or Botswana, or in a neighboring country or a completely different place.
But both of these countries have low vaccination rates and have documented the struggle to secure doses, including accusing rich nations of hoarding vaccines.
As of Thursday, only 23.51% of people in South Africa and 19.58% in Botswana have been vaccinated, Our World in Data reported.
This means that the nightmare scenario can come in exactly the way experts warned.
Expert has warned about this for several months
The World Health Organization has repeatedly urged richer countries to share or buy fewer vaccine doses and make sure poor nations get their first doses before distributing booster shots.
Those countries have not listened.
WHO experts said that this broader vaccine distribution was partly necessary to prevent new, dangerous varieties from emerging. WHO chief researcher Dr. Soumya Swaminathan warned in August that she was “afraid” that booster campaigns “will only lead to more variants.”
Other experts have been warning about the same scenario for several months.
Ken Shadlen, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Insider in March that if global vaccine inequality continues, “it will potentially undermine the health benefits of everything we do with lockdowns and vaccines.”
He said it was not inevitable that a vaccine-escaping variant would emerge if the virus continued to spread, but that “it would take a lot of confidence to believe that it will not happen if it continues to to spread. ”
Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who advised Joe Biden on COVID-19 during his presidency, expressed the same concerns to Insider in March.
He said efforts to end the pandemic would be difficult if there is “largely uncontrolled transmission in low- and middle-income countries”, even though the world’s richest nations have carried out widespread vaccinations.
Countries like Britain and Germany are restricting travel from a number of African nations in an attempt to stop the spread of the new variant.