The emergence of new variants like B.220.127.116.11.9 could have been avoided if wealthy countries had ensured poorer nations had access to Covid jabs, experts have said.
Scientists have described B.18.104.22.168.9 , detected in countries including South Africa, as the “most worrying we’ve seen”, with it found to contain a large number of mutations that may not only make it more transmissible, but may also help it to evade the body’s immune system.
But experts such as Tim Bierley, a pharma campaigner at Global Justice Now, said the rise of the variant had been “entirely avoidable” and that conditions for its emergence had been created by low- and middle-income countries being “actively prevented” by the UK from having equitable access to vaccines.
“For more than a year, South Africa, Botswana, and most countries have been calling for world leaders to waive intellectual property on coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments, so they can produce their own jabs. It’s a vital measure that will be discussed at next week’s World Trade Organization conference. But, so far, the UK and EU have recklessly blocked it from making progress.
“If and when this new variant starts to tear through the world, remember that the British government has led opposition to the plan that could have stopped it.”
Dr Ayoade Alakija, a co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said: “I am so angry right now,. Even if the moral argument didn’t work for them, if we had lost sight of our common morality, and common humanity, then even from an enlightened self-interest perspective, surely, surely, they understood that if they did not vax the world as equitably and as quickly as possible, that what we were going to see was variants springing up that we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to control .”
While Botswana, one of the first countries where B.22.214.171.124.9 was detected, has worked hard on its Covid vaccine programme, many remain unvaccinated. According to the WHO, as of 25 November, a total of 1,016,989 vaccine doses have been administered in Botswana, with Reuters suggesting that 38.3% of the population had received at least one dose. In South Africa, Reuters suggests 24.1% of the population has had two doses.
Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) warned that that the approach of vaccinating and re-vaccinating increasingly low-risk people in wealthy countries would “rebound on rich countries”, noting that they would end up with more deaths and more economic damage as a direct consequence.
“There isn’t any need for altruism here – just hard-nosed self interest – but somehow the politicians continue to fail to grasp this and those of us advising them are told very clearly that anything outside our borders is outside our remit,” he told the Guardian.
However, Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London also emphasised additional complexities around B.126.96.36.199.9, as South Africa currently has excess vaccine stocks that it can’t use due to vaccine hesitancy.
Research has suggested the problem is larger among white adults, with one study from August revealing just over half were willing to receive a Covid jab compared with about 75% of Black adults.
But Alakija said the issues were unrelated. “Had South Africa and indeed the rest of Africa been allowed access to vaccines at the same time as the rich countries of the world there wouldn’t have been uncontrolled spread replication and subsequent mutation of the virus,” she said.