Prominent Africans including the co-chairman of the African Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance and the president of the African Development Bank, Ayoade Alakija and Akinwumi Adesina respectively, have condemned what they termed the developed nations’ rush to ban African nations over the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa- named Omicron and classified as a SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation.
While Mrs Alakija spoke to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in an interview, Mr Adesina took to his verified twitter handle to vent his anger against what he described as the world’s decision to punish Africa for no crime.
New travel bans
On Friday, WHO announced the discovery of the new COVID-19 variant, noting that it has a large number of mutations and that preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the global body said.
Apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel, Malawi, Botswana, Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Hong Kong, amongst others.
And in response to this, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the European Union and some Asian countries have ‘hurriedly’ imposed travel bans on Southern African countries including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
In her reaction to the development, Mrs Alakija told BBC that if coronavirus had originated from Africa the developed nations would have simply locked Africa away and thrown away the keys.
The official, whose group has been in the forefront of ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines against the pandemic, blamed the high-income nations for subjecting the poor countries of the world to undeserved hardship through hoarding of vaccines.
Describing the new variant and its spread as inevitable, Mrs Alakija said: “It was absolutely inevitable and may I say, firstly, that had the first SARS COVID-19 virus, the one that was first identified in China last year originated in Africa, it is now clear that the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key; there would have been no urgency to develop vaccines, because it would have been expendable. Africa would have become known as the continent of COVID.
“What is going on right now is inevitable. It’s as a result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner. It is as a result of hoarding by high-income countries of the world. And quite frankly, it is unacceptable. These travel bans are based in politics and not in science. It is wrong.”
She accused vaccine manufacturer- Moderna- of denying Botswana the delivery of vaccine doses it paid for even at higher rates, but that the company, like others, has continued to serve the wealthy nations.
She said: “The Botswana government ordered 500,000 Moderna vaccines at $29 per dose, much higher than the rest of the world paid. They did not get those vaccines because other people jumped ahead in the queue.
“They supplied to other countries and did not supply it to Botswana and so now we have a variant. Do we know where this variant originated? No, we don’t even know that yet. It could possibly be that the excellent science in South Africa has shown it up but it could very well have come from anywhere else. This is discriminatory, it is xenophobia and it is wrong. Let us follow science and not politics. Let us share the know-how, let us allow African countries and others to produce their own vaccines…”
She called on African leaders to rise in defence of the continent, especially at this critical time, saying their voices must be heard.
“Why are Africans unvaccinated? This is an outrage, because we knew we were going to get here, we knew this is where the hoarding and the lack of IP waivers, the lack of cooperation on sharing technology, and sharing know-how, we knew this is a crossroads that it was going to bring us to a variant, it was going to bring us to more dangerous variants.
“Why are we acting surprised? Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents, but nobody’s locking away Belgium, nobody’s locking away Israel. Why are we locking away Africa?
“It is wrong and it is also time that our African leaders stand up and they find their voice. African leadership needs to sit up at this moment. Our presidents need to wake up at this moment and realise that this is not business as usual. That continent is at stake, our lives are at stake and we cannot allow the world to do this to us,” Mrs Alakija said.
In his post on Sunday evening, Mr Adesina advised world leaders not to label and penalise Africa for the new variant, even as he called on Africa to start the production of its own vaccine, adding that Africa has been underserved through the global vaccine supply system.
He said: “There must be global justice, equity and fairness in access to vaccines. Global vaccine supply system has underserved Africa. Protecting one’s home alone in the midst of a forest fire does not work. Put out the forest fire.
“Africa must accelerate the manufacturing of its own vaccines and set up its own “healthcare security defence system,” Africa must no longer outsource the health security of its 1.8 billion people to the benevolence of others.”
Africa lags far behind other continents in COVID-19 vaccinations.
WHO officials have attributed the vaccination gaps to unequal distribution of vaccines, noting that wealthier nations have bought enough doses to offer booster shots while poorer countries have struggled to get first doses.
As of September, 2021, only fifteen African countries – nearly a third of the continent’s 54 nations – have fully vaccinated 10 per cent of their people against COVID-19.
The global goal of fully vaccinating 10 per cent of every country’s population by 30 September was set in May by the World Health Assembly, the world’s highest health policy-setting body. Almost 90 per cent of high income-countries have met this target.
Meanwhile, Mr Adeshina and other campaigners believe that Africa needs to manufacture its own vaccines as the reliance on those produced in the high-income countries are not equitably shared.
About Omicron variant
After nearly two years of the pandemic and discovery of the Delta variant, many had thought the whole world would soon regain normalcy. But with the discovery of the Omicron and the rate at which it is spreading worldwide, there is an uncomfortable reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
But there is yet no clear scientific evidence to determine the virulence of the new variant but the rash reactions of the high-income nations have been said to be based more on politics than science.
In a report by Haaretz the South Africa Medical Association has said people infected with the omicron variant have shown only mild symptoms.
The report quoted SAMA’s chairwoman, Angelique Coetzee, telling the BBC that the cases identified so far are not severe. “However, she noted that research on the omicron variant is still in its initial stages. As of Sunday, only 24 per cent of the people in South Africa have been fully vaccinated, she added.”
“According to the report, omicron patients tended to be younger, and the variant was not found as often among the older population. Those infected with the variant mainly experienced fatigue and body aches. Still, it is still unknown what effect infection has on the older adults with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease,” the report added.
Where has omicron been confirmed?
Cases have been identified in South Africa, Britain, Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Israel and the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.
Scientists say Omicron could be more transmissible and better at evading the body’s immune defenses, making vaccines likely less effective. The WHO has also said that preliminary evidence suggests an “increased risk of reinfection” compared to other variants.
All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.
Scientists are still not clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.
WHO also said it is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of the new variant on existing countermeasures, including vaccines.
WHO’s recommended actions
As Omicron has been designated a Variant of Concern, there are several actions WHO recommends countries should undertake, including enhancing surveillance and sequencing of cases; sharing genome progressions on publicly available databases, such as GISAID; reporting initial cases or clusters to WHO; performing field investigations and laboratory assessments to better understand if Omicron has different transmission or disease characteristics, or impacts effectiveness of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics or public health and social measures.
The global health organisation also said countries should continue to implement the effective public health measures to reduce COVID-19 circulation overall, using a risk analysis and science-based approach.
According to WHO, it is important that inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines are urgently addressed to ensure that vulnerable groups everywhere, including health workers and older persons, receive their first and second doses, alongside equitable access to treatment and diagnostics.
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