Its reward for this was Britain slapping an immediate ban on flights from the country, with others rapidly following suit.
This is not the first time South Africa has identified a new variant. Beta was, for example, documented in the country at the tail end of last year. It is one of a number of World Health Organisation-designated “variants of concern”. But it has so far proven to be a relative flyweight when compared to the rampaging Delta.
Omicron may be different. Scientists have been voicing concerns about its multiple mutations affecting the critical spike proteins, used by the virus to invade cells. It may be more transmissible than even Delta. It may have the capacity to evade antibodies/vaccines.
It’s quite possible that Britain’s swift reaction was motivated, at least in part, by the government’s previous leaden-footed and lackadaisical approach to its borders.
While more research is clearly needed before conclusions can be drawn about this new nasty, the hard fact is that it is impossible to argue against a policy of safety first – which is how Transport Secretary Grant Shapps put it. Covid has a proven ability to throw the curveball or the Googly. Whether the UK government has truly learned, the lessons of its past failures remain open to question.
Where South Africa has genuine cause for complaint, where the whole continent of Africa has cause for complaint as the air travel bans fly, is over the West’s previous hoarding of vaccines, and the slow and patchy supply to the rest of the world.
I’m writing this secure, well secure-ish, in the knowledge that I’ve had three shots. Two primary Oxford AstraZeneca vaccinations and a Pfizer booster. So I’m in possession of one of those flashy comprehensive cover insurance policies that’ll deliver a courtesy car if you get in a prang, and send the AA out if it won’t start.
The problem is, nearly half the world has no cover at all. Just 29 per cent of South Africa’s population has had at least one dose, with only 24 per cent fully covered, less than half Britain’s number. Nearly one in four of this country’s citizens have had three shots.
And South Africa is actually near the top of the league in Africa. The figures for the Democratic Republic of Congo are 0.1 per cent first jab and 0.1 per cent fully vaccinated. Single figure percentages can be found all over the continent.
Rich, western, countries signed contracts with big pharma to ensure they got more doses than they needed, and sometimes engaged in unsightly pissing contests, such as the one between the AstraZeneca, the UK and the EU, while they were at it. Meanwhile, large parts of the world were left to swing in the viral wind.
The problem with doing that is now being made abundantly clear. Viruses don’t care about borders. Where they’re allowed to freely spread in unvaccinated populations, they will mutate and create new variants, which have the capacity to take hold before the WHO has even classified them as “of interest” yet alone “ of concern”.
Donations have been pledged. But they have not been delivered. The WHO previously projected that Africa needed about 270m doses to reach a target of 10 per cent fully vaccinated by the end of September. By the last day of the month, it had received 200m, 70m light of the requirement.
This has made some people angry and uncomfortable. They’ve even boycotted boosters. But that is ultimately a self-indulgent form of protest because it won’t result in the delivery of a single extra shot to where they’re most needed.
A donation to an organisation like Unicef and a letter to the local MP would be a more constructive means of moving the needle and moving needles to where they’re desperately needed.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the variant was of “huge international concern”.
If this is the next viral supervillain, a Delta plus plus whatever, it ought to send out a huge international message: The West’s pandemic policy of looking after number one and beggar thy neighbour is self-defeating.
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