Covid-19: “A variant like Omicron is created by the unfair distribution of vaccines around the world” – France

Which are the least vaccinated countries in the world?

These include the countries of Equatorial Africa, Oman, Afghanistan and Syria. The African continent really remains the big forgotten of this vaccination campaign, even if we see better rates on its northern and southern ends.

Covax, a program of the World Health Organization (WHO), had yet to enable global and fair access to vaccines. Did he fail?

Covax didn’t live up to all expectations, especially since it was India through the Serum Institute of India that provided 75% of the doses destined for Africa. However, when India was hit by the wave of the Delta variant in the spring, it completely stopped its deliveries.

Dr. Anne Senequier is Co-Director of the Global Health Observatory at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. (Photo Anne Senequier)

Some scientists argue that under-vaccination coverage in Africa is a potential hazard as it allows new varieties such as Omicron to emerge. Do you share this analysis?

If we look at the genesis of the different variants, Alpha in the UK, Beta in South Africa, Delta in India, etc., we have this low vaccinated population constant. This is also the case in South Africa (with 24% coverage, editor’s note). Another peculiarity of this country is the prevalence of HIV, which means that the population has many immunocompromised people. You don’t have an immune system that can effectively fight the virus. Instead of being evacuated in three or four weeks, it will stay with its host for up to several months. It can multiply there, make replication errors and therefore mutate. The correspondence between low vaccination rates and high HIV prevalence creates an ideal breeding ground for a virus like this one.

Do we have enough doses today to vaccinate the entire world population?

We preferred a commercial approach rather than a sanitary one. Had we had a fair international vaccine distribution this summer, we would have fully vaccinated all people at risk and all healthcare workers around the world. The risk of stress in hospitals would be reduced and the pandemic dynamics today would be radically different. It is very likely that this variant of Omicron would not have existed, although other problems may have occurred. Today it seems to me, despite a very significant increase in vaccine production capacity, that this is insufficient to vaccinate everyone. Some countries have started vaccinating children, you also need a booster dose, since after six months immunity is reduced … these pathologies.

Couldn’t we allow these countries to make vaccines on their soil?

Another part of Covax, which was launched in June, is the manufacture of vaccines in the African continent, particularly in South Africa. But building up the logistics and training employees in this high-tech sanitary technology takes a long time. Difficulties also exist with the revocation of patents. I don’t think this component will be effective until 2022.

China announced on Monday that it would provide Africa with one billion doses of additional vaccines, including 600 million in donations and a further portion by building production units. Is this a way to cement your influence a little on the continent?

That is very wise of China, which has continued to use the isolationist reflexes of western countries to its advantage since the pandemic began. China has maintained this constant in the fight against Covid-19 thanks to its masks, vaccines, etc. to consolidate its strategy of the new “Silk Road” aimed at forging alliances around the world. It is a way of positioning yourself vis-à-vis low and middle income countries as an actor who supports them in difficult times, unlike the West … who makes promises it does not keep. China scores points in the Sino-American duel on an international level.

Why have rich countries appropriated almost all stocks? Out of excessive caution?

Unfortunately, it is the reflection of our humanity that, in the face of difficulties, primarily has the reflex to protect itself. In the medium and long term, this is irrelevant because we can clearly see today that this unjust distribution of vaccines is creating variants like Omicron that are worrying western countries. If this variant succeeds in challenging our cherished immunity, new customized doses will still have to be made, and it is very likely that the same scenario will be replayed, with western countries pre-empting the bottles. We keep falling into the same mistakes and we never stop wanting to treat this pandemic only at the national level. It just doesn’t work. As with climate change, coordination and international cooperation are required here. Closing the boundaries like we did with the original strain, the alpha variant or the delta never worked. The functioning and prerogatives of WHO need to be reconsidered in order for it to be able to really coordinate the response.

Are 90% of the African population ready for a vaccination?

I urge you to find a single country in the world that is 90% vaccinated without much incentive. In 2014, Ebola was the first major epidemic that had to be dealt with under the influence of social networks and their false rumors. Today we are talking about an infodemy that leads to distrust among the population. It is no longer able to distinguish verified information from others who are not, in an area that is still very technical. This problem is not specific to Africa, but global. The human factor is the weak or strong link in this epidemic. It is up to us to decide by counteracting this false information.

As long as the entire world population is not adequately vaccinated, will we never see the end of this epidemic?

Global coordination and collaboration would allow us to finish it faster. Now we are unable to do that. At some point this epidemic will nevertheless subside: the human reservoir is not infinite, with the increase in immunity, be it through vaccination or infection, we will have fewer and fewer chains of transmission. In the history of mankind we have seen drastic pandemics subside even without a vaccine. But vaccinations, barrier gestures and treatments should reduce the timing and intensity of epidemic waves.

* Dr. Anne Senequier is Co-Director of the Global Health Observatory at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. Together with Pascal Boniface, she is co-author of the book “Quite simple geopolitics: Understanding the world and international relations”, which has been available in bookshops since November 18th.