Will it take a more deadly COVID strain than Omicron to wake up world leaders?

This column argued last month that there is an urgent need for new security thinking, citing climate degradation and the COVID-19 pandemic as the real security challenges of our time.

For the latter, he cited the global toll of 5.1 million COVID-19 deaths from the World Health Organization (WHO) in mid-November, but also warned that the WHO was concerned about the underreporting of deaths in many countries. Other reliable estimates ranged from 12 to 17 million deaths.

The chronicle predicted other problems due to low vaccination rates around the world: “The impact of COVID-19 is therefore much higher than what is generally assumed, and there is still a long way to go. Global immunization rates are woefully inadequate, but very few governments have a clear vision of what is really needed. “

At this point, the WHO had reported that 7.2 billion doses of the vaccine had been distributed to a global population of nearly 8 billion. Complete vaccination with a booster therefore requires almost 25 billion doses but, as the chronicle puts it: “This is unlikely to be achieved before 2023 – which will result in large pools of viruses interacting only with populations. partially vaccinated, which is a recipe for more variations.

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Meanwhile, there have been discussions between virologists and epidemiologists regarding the implementation of annual boosters to try to keep the pandemic under control. This means that by the time we reach global immunization, richer states may already be booming from an annual booster system, making it even less likely that countries in the South will catch up and remain more at risk. to variants.

Huge benefit for the virus

The general argument of this column was that conventional thinking about global security has been constrained by the standard military approach, while that thinking will not work for either the pandemic or the climate crisis. And the pandemic represents the most immediate risk, keeping in mind the old adage: “This is the link closest to your throat that you first severed.”

Since then, the pandemic has evolved rapidly again. Two aspects are most urgent: the new Omicron variant; and indications that vaccine nationalism is accelerating – just when the opposite is needed. Omicron is out of nowhere and is spreading rapidly less than a fortnight after South Africa announced its detection. It has already been detected in 24 countries, and more are added to the list every day.

While intensive work is underway to assess its infectivity, lethality and resistance to vaccines and antiviral drugs, there is little concrete information, in part explaining the sudden attempts by some countries to keep it out. Provisional results are mixed. Some data from South Africa, the worst-affected country to date, shows that it produces relatively mild symptoms, but this may be skewed by the fact that many of the first cases of Omicron have been identified in individuals. younger or detected in very recently screened travelers, the impact on the elderly is therefore unclear.

The first indications are that Omicron could be much more infectious than the previously dominant Delta. Based on the increase in COVID-19 cases and sequencing data, Tom Wenseleers, an evolutionary biologist at KU-Leuven in Belgium, estimated that Omicron could infect three to six times more people than Delta, on the same period. “It’s a huge benefit for the virus – but not for us,” he said.

A more worrying indication is that Omicron is infecting people who have already had COVID-19. According to new evidence gathered in South Africa by the country’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), the latest epidemiological evidence suggests that Omicron may evade immunity against infection with previous variants and cause re-infections to rates three times higher.

The Omicron variant is precisely what the WHO has been warning against for at least a year, as it has repeatedly called for an accelerated global vaccination. This brings us to the second area of ​​concern: the persistence of vaccine nationalism in rich countries protecting their own at the expense of the rest of the world.

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