Omicron, the variant we all saw coming

by Brittany Lambert | Oxfam Canada | November 30, 2021

A new heavily mutated COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is causing global alarm − triggering travel bans and putting scientists on alert. This latest variant is now radically different from the original strand that emerged in China, raising questions about whether vaccines will be as effective.

It was entirely predictable that mutations would arise in Africa, the part of the world with the least access to COVID-19 vaccines. Only 6% of people in Africa are fully vaccinated. The contrast with high-income countries like Canada, which boasts a 76% vaccination rate, is so stark that it has been called a “vaccine apartheid”. Sadly, we still live in a world where economic inequality profoundly affects people’s right to health and life.

In March, epidemiologists from some of the world’s leading academic institutions warned of the risk the world was taking by failing to ensure all countries had sufficient vaccines. They predicted that if low vaccine coverage persisted in some parts of the world, we had less than a year before the virus mutated to the extent that existing vaccines were ineffective. It is not yet clear how well our vaccines will protect against Omicron. What is clear is that the world is failing to scale up vaccine supply fast enough.

The global vaccine shortage is no accident. Intellectual property rules allow Western pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Pfizer-BioNTech to monopolize vaccine production. Yet, other capable manufacturers are ready and willing to make vaccines if intellectual property barriers are removed and if technology and know-how are shared. It makes no sense to leave the control of vaccine supply in the hands of pharmaceutical companies whose primary goal is to maximize their own profits.

Big pharma companies have used their monopolies to prioritize the most profitable contracts with the richest governments, leaving low-income countries out in the cold. This strategy is working just as intended. The latest company reports for Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna reveal that these companies are making combined profits of $65,000 per minute.

This situation has led to a split-screen reality of runaway pharma profits on one hand, and accelerating deaths in low-income countries on the other. While COVID-19 vaccines have created at least nine new billionaires, the pandemic continues to shatter the world’s weakest economies. COVID-19 is destroying livelihoods and making global hunger skyrocket. Women are hardest hit since they are in the worst-paid, least secure jobs.

In June, G7 countries pledged to use their vaccine surpluses to immunize the world. Half a year later, countries are falling embarrassingly short of their promises. A report last month showed that, of the 1.8 billion COVID vaccine donations promised by rich nations, only 14 per cent had been delivered to date. Meanwhile, every day, six times more boosters are administered in rich countries than first-time shots in low-income countries. It is clear that trickle-down vaccine charity is failing. Developing countries need the rights and formulae to make their own vaccines.

For over a year now, countries have been unable to agree on a temporary suspension of intellectual property rules on COVID-19 products at the World Trade Organization (WTO). While over 100 countries have openly back the proposal – dubbed the “TRIPS waiver” –, a few rich countries have blocked it or remained silent. Canada is among them.

World Trade Organization members were set to meet next week to continue discussions. Friday, the meeting was postponed due to concerns over the spread of the new Omicron variant. It is deeply ironic that the vaccine apartheid that rich countries and the WTO have refused to address is ultimately responsible for the decision to postpone these talks.

It is clearer than ever that there can be no more delays. Canada must urgently come out and openly support the TRIPS waiver. Putting pharmaceutical profits before human life is not only morally reprehensible, but is clearly a risk to us all.

In addition to the ethical and public health imperatives for supporting the TRIPS waiver, Canada has legal obligations to do so – as suggested in an open letter signed this week by over 100 organizations and human rights experts.

Canada, it’s time to stand on the right side of history.

Brittany Lambert is a policy specialist leading Oxfam Canada’s work on COVID-19 and vaccine equality