Rise of a new coronavirus variant in Africa looks like the disaster scenario experts warned of if rich nations hoarded vaccines for themselves

·3 min read
A man gets a coronavirus vaccine on a train intended to get vaccines to remote areas in South Africa in August 2021.
A man receiving a coronavirus vaccine on a train in South Africa.Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
  • A new coronavirus variant was found in southern Africa. Experts worry it could be the worst so far.

  • Scientists had warned that a dangerous variant could emerge if there wasn't global vaccine access.

  • They said all countries needed vaccines before rich ones got boosters. Rich nations didn't listen.

As coronavirus vaccines were produced, approved, and rolled out, health experts said the doses needed to make it around the world, not just to the richest countries.

This was needed, they said, to reduce the rates of death and serious illness in poorer nations, and to protect their populations.

They also mentioned 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 the vaccinated.

A worrying variant found

A new variant, dubbed B.1.1.529, has been mostly identified in Botswana and South Africa, as well as in Hong Kong, where it was imported by a traveler.

A relatively small number of cases has been discovered so far, but the variant has been spreading rapidly, officials said.

Experts are describing B.1.1.529 as worrying, pointing to its high number of mutations, which means it could render existing antibodies, vaccines, and treatments less effective, as Insider's Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reported.

Scientists are trying to figure out whether it's more infectious, more deadly, or both.

Many experts have already said that it's the worst variant they've seen since the pandemic began.

It's not clear exactly where the new variant developed. It could have been in South Africa, in Botswana, in a neighboring country, or somewhere else entirely.

But both those countries have low vaccination rates, and they've documented the struggle in securing doses, including accusing rich nations of hoarding vaccines.

As of Thursday, 23.51% of people in South Africa and 19.58% in Botswana have been fully vaccinated, Our World in Data reported.

A graph showing the vaccine rates of South Africa and Botswana to many of the world's wealthiest countries.
A graph showing the vaccine rates of South Africa and Botswana compared to many of the world's wealthiest countries.Our World in Data

This means the nightmare scenario could be arriving in just the way experts have warned about.

Experts warned of this for months

The World Health Organization has repeatedly urged richer countries to share or buy fewer vaccine doses, and to make sure poorer nations have their first doses before distributing booster shots.

Those countries haven't listened.

The WHO experts said this wider vaccine distribution was needed in part to stop new, dangerous variants from emerging. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's chief scientist, said in August that she was "afraid" that booster campaigns "will only lead to more variants."

Other experts have warned of the same scenario for 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 persisted, "it's going to potentially undermine the health benefits of all that we're doing with lockdowns and vaccines."

He said it wasn't inevitable that a vaccine-escaping variant would emerge if the virus kept spreading, but that "it would take a lot of confidence to believe that it's not going to, if it keeps spreading."

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who advised Joe Biden on COVID-19 during his presidential transition, expressed the same concerns to Insider in March.

He said that efforts to end the pandemic would be difficult if there was a "largely uncontrolled transmission in the low- and middle-income countries," even if the world's richest nations had done widespread vaccinations.

Countries such as the UK and Germany are restricting travel from a number of African nations in a bid to stop the spread of the new variant.

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