The World Health Assembly’s special session this week to progress a global pandemic treaty could not be more timely, with the new Omicron variant highlighting an urgent need to address global failures in COVID responses.
The World Health Organization issued a statement late on 1 December (AEDT), saying agreement had been reached to progress “an historic global accord” on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.
Melissa Sweet writes:
Have we learnt nothing from the past two years? This sentiment has been widely expressed as news about the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, spread like wildfire around the globe.
As one scientist commented, at the end of a long Twitter thread exploring the scientific uncertainties around Omicron, “Why do we keep sucking so badly at our COVID-19 response? Bloody hell, we haven’t learned a thing. And we’re still making the same mistakes…”
The scientist – Professor Kristian G. Andersen, from the Scripps Research Institute in the United States – gave as one example of these mistakes the news that travel bans were impeding scientific research into Omicron in South Africa.
He referred to a tweet by Professor Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, that he had spent much of his day talking to genomic and biotech companies “as soon we will run out of reagents as airplanes are not flying to South Africa!”
“It will be ‘evil’ if we cannot answer the questions that the world needs about Omicron due to the travel ban!,” de Oliveira said.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also sounded the alarm about the travel restrictions imposed on African countries by many nations. (Australia is one of them).
“As I and others have long warned, low vaccine rates are a breeding ground for variants,” Gueterres said in a statement.
“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalised for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.
“I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travellers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures, with the objective of avoiding the risk of transmission so as to allow for travel and economic engagement.”
Get this fixed
Meanwhile, de Oliveira also tweeted out a plea for the World Bank and other financial institutions, and the world’s billionaires, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, to support Africa and South Africa financially to control and extinguish variants.
“By protecting its poor and oppressed population, we will protect the world,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, we’ve been warned repeatedly that global inequities in vaccine access would prolong the pandemic.
Yet there has not been a commensurate response. As Andersen tweeted: “Vaccine equity is *the* most pressing issue we’re facing and we keep flunking it. Bad. Over and over and over again. It’s pathetic. Omicron is a reminder to get this fixed – now. As in, months ago…”
The World Health Organization (WHO) says more than 80 percent of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries; low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6 percent of all vaccines.
Omicron, which is now thought to have been circulating in western Europe before it was identified in South Africa, emerged just days before an historic World Health Assembly session to consider a global pandemic treaty (from 29 November-1 December).
In a powerful speech, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the special session’s opening that Omicron showed the need for a new accord on pandemics as the current system disincentivised countries from alerting others to threats.
“South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalised,” he said.
He said the lack of a consistent and coherent global approach to the pandemic had “resulted in a splintered and disjointed response, breeding misunderstanding, misinformation and mistrust”.
COVID-19 had exposed and exacerbated fundamental weaknesses in the global architecture for pandemic preparedness and response, including complex, fragmented governance and inadequate financing.
Ghebreyesus said it was not yet known whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more risk of reinfections, or more risk of evading vaccines (see more detail on these issues in these briefings from the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control).
“But Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us,” he said.
He called for Member State to support the targets to vaccinate 40 percent of the population of every country by the end of this year, and 70 percent by the middle of next year.
“Even as some countries are now beginning to vaccinate groups at very low risk of severe disease, or to give boosters to healthy adults, just one in four health workers in Africa has been vaccinated. This is unacceptable,” he said.
Ghebreyesus cited the example of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which had contributed to significant, rapid progress in tobacco control and was estimated to have saved more than 37 million lives and counting, with the global prevalence of tobacco use falling from almost 33 percent in 2000 to 22 percent today.
An evaluation found that without the FCTC, it is unlikely that all tobacco control measures would have taken place in such a comprehensive, coordinated, and effective manner.
“Comprehensive. Coordinated. Effective. Three words that history will not use to describe the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
As to the impact of the promised pandemic treaty, time will tell.
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control briefing on Omicron
WHO overview (30 November)
WHO update on Omicron (28 November)
Will omicron – the new coronavirus variant of concern – be more contagious than delta? A virus evolution expert explains what researchers know and what they don’t
Wealthy nations starved the developing world of vaccines. Omicron shows the cost of this greed
Columbia Journalism Review: On Omicron, uncertainty, vaccine equity, and the media
See Croakey’s archive of stories on vaccine equity.