Vigilance, not panic, to tackle Omicron

Omicron, most recent Covid variant of note, is a reminder that the pandemic is still not over. The proactive and robust South African scientific establishment has been able to alert the world very early on this new variant. Not much is known – its rate of transmission, virulence and whether existing vaccines are effective – and scientists across the world are working to understand its various dimensions. The world is back on high alert. Stepping up vigilance, testing and tracing protocols, and doubling down on vaccinations rather than panic is the way forward.

With the postponement of the WTO session, hopes for a patent waiver for Covid vaccines and drugs this year have receded. As governments close down their borders – the UK was the first to do so, followed by countries in Europe – it is imperative that inequities in vaccination be addressed. Without 70% of the global population being vaccinated, new variants are bound to keep emerging. Developed countries and countries with production capacities, such as India, must improve vaccine supplies. A year after vaccines were first available, many countries, particularly in Africa, continue to have vaccination rates below 10%. Ironically, only 24% in South Africa are fully vaccinated. As a leading vaccine manufacturer and a developing country, India must step up production. With indigenously developed vaccine, Covaxin, now recognised by the WHO, the government must buy out its patent rights and make them available in Africa for free, for mass production. India should, as part of its South-South cooperation, set up production units in collaboration with proven partners in Africa.

Omicron calls for a scientific race against time to learn more about this virus, and efficacy of vaccines and drugs. Vigilance, robust testing and tracing protocols, stepping up production of vaccines and proven drugs, development of new vaccines targeting new variants and of new drugs must be on the priority list of governments. If ever there was a moment for ‘leaving no one behind’ to be more than a cliche, it is now.


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