Omicron Variant Raises Concerns of Vaccine Equity

A growing number of states and countries are detecting the omicron variant, though it has yet to be identified in Illinois.

Some say the mutation raises concerns about vaccine equity across the globe.

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“I think the vaccine distribution has not gone very well because at the beginning of the pandemic high-income countries — I don’t blame them — prioritized the vaccination of their people while a lot of the low-income country settings didn’t have the resources to have access to any vaccine. So that disparity is still there,” said Dr. Sola Olopade, director of clinical programs at the Center for Global Health at the University of Chicago. He is also dean for academic affairs in the Biological Sciences Division.

New variants of the coronavirus are emerging in parts of the world with lower vaccine distribution, said Dr. Richard Novak, head of the infectious disease division at UI Health.

“The problem is particularly severe in Africa, mostly sub-Saharan Africa, but if we look at the entire African continent, I think that only 8% of the continent has been vaccinated. So they’re really behind. Vaccine distribution to Africa is critical if we are going to control the pandemic,” Novak said.

South Africa has a higher vaccination rate than most other countries in Africa.

While the omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, it’s not clear where the variant first emerged. Novak says South Africa is doing an “excellent system of collecting data.”

“That’s why we know about it in South Africa, because they’ve done such a good job, frankly better than we have in the United States, of sequencing viral islets and tracking what’s happening over time,” Novak said.

COVAX is an international collaborative working to create an equitable vaccine distribution. The World Health Organization, and GAVI, a vaccine alliance, co-lead COVAX. Olopade said these organizations need to be able to negotiate prices for COVID-19 vaccines, like they have for other vaccinations in the past, in order to improve access to vaccines.

“I think if we can do that and have some of the high-income or wealthy countries also make a significant contribution, either in terms of vaccines or in terms of financial support... I think it can help narrow the gap if we can get over the vaccine hesitancy and all of the bad information that’s out there,” Olopade said.

US, Other Countries Implement Travel Restrictions

The United States and other countries implemented travel restrictions to South Africa after it announced the variant. Many — including the World Health Organization — have criticized travel bans for penalizing South Africa for sharing information.

“[South Africa has] a tremendous surveillance system and a very robust laboratory system. They’ve been able to identify this new omicron variant very early on,” said Michael Diamond, a medical anthropologist, professor at DePaul and the president of World Resources Chicago.

“The downside for South Africa is they were then penalized by countries banning all travel from not only South African but southern Africa and other African countries, so this sends a message of sanctions to other countries that want to come forward,” Diamond said.

Olopade said he doesn’t think the travel restrictions will prevent academics from sharing information about new variants. However, he is concerned about “unintended consequences” of such restrictions.

“The unintended consequence is that we worsen the economic situation in these countries. We dismantle the fragile health care infrastructure and allow more and more people to be infected and making all of us unsafe,” Olopade.

Novak says travel restrictions aren’t an “unreasonable approach” to slow the spread of a variant, but that may or may not be effective.

“In this case it’s probably too little too late frankly, the so-called horse is already out of the barn, I suspect. We’re already seeing the omicron variant in at least 17 states and that’s in a number of countries… The spreading had already occurred before South Africa identified the omicron variant within South Africa,” Novak said.

“It may or may not do that, we just don’t know, but it may be too late. The virus is here already, and we already have evidence of community spread, a few cases, most of the cases have been important, and so maybe by closing the borders we will slow the spread, but we won’t prevent it,” Novak said.

On Sunday, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he hopes the ban will be lifted “in a reasonable period of time,” AP News reports.

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