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Editorial: The unavoidable global lesson of the Omicron variant

While some here at home snub our miraculous vaccines, under 10 per cent of people in poorer countries, on average, have access to even a single shot. Rich nations need more efficient means of sharing doses with those clamouring for help.

A health-care worker holds the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, in this file shot from earlier this year.

It is still too early to know what impact the Omicron coronavirus variant will have on global attempts to beat down COVID-19. But it is not too early to understand that more variants of concern will surface if the world doesn’t do a better job of making vaccines available beyond rich countries.

For while anti-vaccine activists here at home snub these medicinal miracles, now plentiful in industrialized nations, under 10 per cent of people in poorer regions, on average, have had access to even a single dose. Variants pop up in unprotected populations, and in a world where borders can never be completely sealed, travel along with the rest of us.

So the entire world needs a chance at immunization. Yet the contrast between North and South is stark: more than 76 per cent of Canadians are now fully vaccinated (many heading for shot number three); 70 per cent of people in the European Union are double-vaxxed; and 60 per cent of Americans are. Now consider: The number of fully vaccinated people in Nigeria is 1.7 per cent; in Mozambique, 12.6; Ethiopia, 1.3. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the figure is 0.1 per cent.

These countries need help, though it is a false alternative to suggest Canadians forgo booster shots in order to provide it, or that pharmaceutical companies should be forced to share proprietary manufacturing data. The world is now awash in vaccines; rich countries need to find faster and more efficient means to share them. A global mechanism exists to do so: the COVAX initiative. But countries are sluggish with their deliveries: the U.S. pledged 1.2 billion doses, for instance, but has delivered only about 20 per cent of that total. China has delivered about 10 per cent of the 850 million doses it promised. Canada says it will donate the equivalent of 200 million doses to COVAX by the end of 2022; about 8.3 million have been sent so far (760,000 AstraZeneca doses were distributed in Latin America and the Caribbean as well).

Logistical issues also abound. Earlier this week, COVAX and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) pleaded for better coordination , saying “the majority of the donations to-date have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives. This has made it extremely challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorptive capacity …” Vaccines have also arrived without syringes or diluent, which adds costs and delay rollout.

Omicron, whatever its final impact, is a clear warning to richer nations to do better, fast — and a stark example of how we are, truly and unavoidably, “all in this together.”