Unvaccinated are fertile ground for proliferation of new variants
Good news on coronavirus: Third dose of Pfizer neutralizes Omicron variant. Bad news on coronavirus: The unvaccinated in U.S. and around the world are fertile ground for proliferation of new variants. | Susan Montoya Bryan / AP

Public health officials and scientists greeted the news that three doses of the Pfizer vaccine effectively work against the Omicron Covid-19 variant with hopeful caution. Reports indicate Omicron is more contagious but less deadly than the Delta variant.

But the vast numbers of unvaccinated people across much of the world and the anti-vaxxers in the U.S. are fertile ground for the proliferation of variants, some possibly more dangerous, and their transmission. In the U.S., over 60% of the population is fully vaccinated as a result of the Biden administration and Democratic state policies. The unvaccinated are responsible for over 90% of the latest surge in Covid-19 infections, which again strains the health care system to the breaking point. Interrupting the chain of transmission with global vaccination is critical to ending the pandemic.

Health workers started administering the first Covid-19 vaccines one year ago. Today, about half the world’s population has received at least one dose. Scientists think about 70% of the global population needs to be fully vaccinated to contain the virus. But only 8 percent of the people in low-income countries have been vaccinated, even though wealthier countries are moving ahead with booster shots.

The existence of “vaccine apartheid” prolongs the pandemic unnecessarily. Two culprits are primarily responsible for global vaccination inequity and swaths of unvaccinated and the resultant infections and deaths.

Vaccine apartheid is ensuring that mutations keep occurring and new variants arise. Here, a Somalian refugee receives a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during a mass vaccination campaign for refugees organized by the Indonesian government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. | Binsar Bakkara / AP

The first is the pharmaceutical industry and governments of developed countries of the global North who immorally protect corporation patents and, by extension, industry mega-profits. Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna are raking in $1,000 in profits each second, or $34 billion in pre-tax profits between them this year.

Despite having received government funding to develop the vaccines, they have successfully blocked the World Trade Organization from granting a TRIPS waiver to allow transfer of patent rights on the vaccine “recipe” and production technology so that production can take place across the developing world.

Big Pharma is putting profits over people by artificially restricting supplies and refusing to ramp up production globally, exposing the predatory nature of global capitalism. The People’s Vaccine Alliance estimated the cost of vaccines was five times greater than necessary because of the pharmaceutical corporation monopoly.

Back in January 2021, Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, warned, “We are witness to a vaccine apartheid that is only serving the interests of powerful and profitable pharmaceutical corporations while costing us the quickest and least harmful route out of this crisis.”

Nearly a year later, little has changed. Promises by wealthy countries to donate 2 billion doses to low-income countries through the United Nation’s COVAX facility have so far only amounted to 25% of that goal. According to the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa, wealthy countries have only met 20% of donation promises.

“Rich nations and corporations are shamefully failing to deliver on their promises whilst blocking the actual solution; ensuring developing nations have the ability to make their own vaccines,” said Byanyima in October.

“It is painfully clear that the developing world cannot rely on the largesse and charity of rich nations and pharmaceutical companies, and hundreds of thousands of people are dying from COVID-19 as a result. This is beyond appalling,” she said.

The second culprit blocking vaccination is the Republican Party, extreme-right and fascist movements globally, and their massive disinformation machines spinning out wild and crazy conspiracy theories and quack cures. They sabotage vaccine and masking mandates, including workplaces and schools, social distancing, and other public health measures to end the pandemic, especially in states and courts they dominate.

The GOP favors spreading Covid-19, beginning with their supporters, and root for the Biden Administration to fail at containing the virus. They don’t care how many bodies pile up so long as it greases their return to power. Their opposition is morphing into a dangerous ban on immunizations, including measles, polio, mumps, and rubella.

First to identify Omicron

South African scientists first identified the Omicron variant, now the dominant Covid-19 strain in South Africa compared to the Delta variant. Instead of making pledges to increase the availability of vaccines, many wealthier countries responded by imposing travel restrictions on South Africa, essentially punishing the country economically for doing the world a public health service.

Besides, scientists and public health officials view travel restrictions as ineffective and too late. Over 20 countries and nearly half the states in the US have reported cases of the Omicron variant.

Public health officials in South Africa estimate Covid-19 has infected about 30% of the population. They are apprehensive about its impact on the 8 million people living with HIV. The Covid-19 virus replicates best in hosts with weakened immune systems. If taken, HIV antivirals will suppress the Covid-19 virus effectively. But if someone HIV positive doesn’t take the antivirals or is not known to be HIV positive, Covid-19 can stay in the body for many months, mutating many times.

Currently, only seven percent of the African population is vaccinated. While health workers administer 133 vaccine doses to every 100 people in the developed world, only four doses are administered to every 100 people in low-income countries. As long as such stark vaccine apartheid exists, new variants will emerge.

Battling vaccine apartheid: Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation on Nov. 29, 2021. China has pledged to donate 600 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccines to Africa as the world grapples with the unequal distribution of the shots between rich and poor countries. | Huang Jingwen / Xinhua via AP

“As we face ever-evolving variants, and other new viruses that may emerge, mRNA vaccines offer a major lifesaving advantage. If only Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech would share the technology with the rest of the world,” said Alain Alsalhani, vaccines and special projects pharmacist at Médecins Sans Frontières’ (Doctors without Borders) Access Campaign. “Luckily, Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine technology is well-suited for quickly responding to viral variants, if needed.”

MSF identified seven manufacturers across the continent that could immediately produce the mRNA vaccine if given the “recipe.”

And, the pandemic is likely becoming endemic, meaning that people will have to get regular vaccinations like the annual flu shot because of new variants. It’s in the interests of every person, regardless of where they live, to achieve global vaccination as quickly as possible.

A solution to vaccine apartheid and breaking the pharmaceutical corporate monopoly may lie elsewhere. China, which has reported less than 5,000 deaths from Covid-19, developed several vaccines, although they are not as effective as Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. By October, China had produced more vaccines than the rest of the world combined.

At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in late November, China’s President Xi Jinping called for greater solidarity to defeat the pandemic. “To help the [African Union] achieve its goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the African population by 2022, I announce that China will provide another one billion doses of vaccines to Africa,” Xi said. “In addition, China will undertake 10 medical and health projects for African countries, and send 1,500 medical personnel and public health experts to Africa.”

And Cuba’s pharmaceutical industry has developed at least two vaccines based on protein technology. That’s important because they don’t need to be stored at extreme temperatures, unlike the mRNA-based vaccines, which allow for easier distribution across the developing world.

One Cuba vaccine, the Soberna, is 92% effective in clinical trials. As of last month, 89% of Cuba’s population, including children as young as two years old, have gotten at least one dose of the vaccines, and 78% of Cuba’s population is fully vaccinated. Cuba leads all other low-income countries in vaccination rates and ranks sixth in the world, ahead of the US. The Cuban government has agreements with Vietnam, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and Nigeria to provide vaccines.

In the meantime, pressure continues to grow on Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to share vaccine technology. Global solidarity and global vaccination are the only ways to end the pandemic.


CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

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