West indian countries

Omicron highlights low immunization coverage in developing countries

With the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was first identified in South Africa, being identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a variant of concern, attention has again shifted to the low immunization rates in developing countries.

WHO had asked each country to vaccinate at least 10% of its population by September. More than 50 countries have missed this target – most of them are in Africa, a continent where only 7% of the population is fully immunized, compared to 42% of the world’s population, according to Our World in Data, which is a Oxford University. project based.

In fact, only 15 African countries reached the 10% target in September, and half of the countries vaccinated less than 2% of their population. Two countries, Burundi and Eritrea, have yet to roll out their immunization programs.

Low immunization coverage among health workers

Even among healthcare workers, vaccination rates are extremely low. Only 27% of health workers in Africa have been fully immunized, according to a WHO analysis. Data analysis further showed that since March 2021, 1.3 million health workers have been fully immunized in 25 countries. Among them, the number was over 90% in just six countries and less than 40% in nine countries. In contrast, WHO data shows that more than 80% of healthcare workers have been vaccinated in high-income countries.

“The majority of African health workers still lack vaccines and remain dangerously exposed to severe infection with COVID-19. Unless our doctors, nurses and other frontline workers are fully protected, we risk a setback in efforts to fight this disease. We need to make sure our health facilities are safe working environments, ”said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, according to a press release.

Things are particularly bad in South Africa where Covid-19 has claimed an estimated 89,000 deaths in recent months, the highest number of deaths from the virus on the continent. According to Our World in Data, around 28% of people in South Africa are vaccinated against Covid-19, and 24% have received both vaccines. This shows how big the gap is with developed countries when it comes to vaccination figures – the share of people fully vaccinated is 75% in Belgium, 62% in Israel and 60% in Hong Kong.

Percentage of people vaccinated in each country (Source: Our World in Data)

Apart from South Africa, immunization figures in most African countries are low: the share of people fully vaccinated is 27% in Lesotho, 18% in Zimbabwe, 21% in Eswatini, 11% in Mozambique and in Namibia and only 3% in Malawi. .

Reason for the low number of vaccinations

Africa has relied on bilateral agreements, donations and the Covax program for its vaccination programs. Promises were made at the G7 summit and the United Nations General Assembly meeting to donate vaccine doses to African states.

But of the billion doses of vaccine that countries had pledged to give to African states, less than 15% were delivered, according to an Airfinity analysis. The analysis, which examined the available supply of vaccines in the US, UK, EU, Canada and Japan, found that potentially 1.2 billion doses of vaccine by the year-end will be available for redistribution, most of which have not been earmarked for donation yet.

Omicron People queue for an overseas flight at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa (AP)

While the richest countries had signed agreements with vaccine manufacturers as early as July 2020, most African states remained dependent on donations.

African states also depended heavily on the Covax program for which they depended on vaccines from the Serum Institute of India. But as India halted vaccine exports as the country went through the second wave of the pandemic, supplies were hit, leading to a shortage of vaccines through Covax.

While the WHO aims to immunize 40% of the world’s population to be fully immunized by the end of 2021, the current rate suggests that the target will not be reached in Africa until March 2022. WHO had originally proposed to deliver 620 million doses to Africa, but has now revised the target to 470 million. This will be enough to fully immunize only 17% of the African population.

Low vaccination rates and emerging variants

Inequalities leading to low vaccination coverage in some countries give the virus more hosts to infect and more time to mutate. This effectively means that it paves the way for the emergence of more potentially dangerous mutant variants that can evade the immunity offered by vaccines and lead to a new surge in infections.

“Running out of immunity is something viruses do very well. While there are a lot of populations that are still susceptible, we are in the same kind of hamster wheel that we have been in before, ”Ian Mackay, associate professor of virology at the University of Queensland told Bloomberg. .

Speaking on the Omicron variant, Maria Van Kerkohove, COVID-19 technical manager at WHO, said in a statement: “This variant has been detected and reported by our colleagues in South Africa. There are less than 100 whole genome sequences available. We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that his variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have that many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus. “

While it’s not yet clear about Omicron, scientists have said it carries a cluster of mutations seen in other variants of concern and associated with increased transmissibility.

Even though the Genomic Surveillance Network in South Africa has said it will continue to monitor the virus closely for emerging variants that could be potentially dangerous, the conversation has once again shifted to how vaccine inequity is a stumbling block for the global quest to recover from the pandemic.

“Vaccine inequity is the biggest obstacle in the world to ending this pandemic and recovering from Covid-19,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, recently said in a statement WHO press release. “Economically, epidemiologically and morally, it is in the interest of all countries to use the latest data available to make life-saving vaccines accessible to all,” he added.

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