It’s almost two years since we first heard of Covid-19, and a year since the first Covid vaccines were rolled out. Yet this staggering progress is being squandered. We have drifted for months now, with richer countries, taking a very blinkered domestic focus, lulled into thinking that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. This variant reminds us all that we remain closer to the start of the pandemic than the end.
There is a lot we need to learn about the Omicron variant. Whether or not this is a pandemic-changing variant – one that really evades our vaccines and treatments – remains to be seen. Research will tell us more in the coming days and weeks, and we must watch and follow the data closely while giving the brilliant scientific teams time to get the answers. Although I am very worried about countries with limited access to vaccines, I am cautiously hopeful that our current vaccines will continue to protect us against severe sickness and death, if we are fully vaccinated.
But that may not be true for the next variant.
The longer this virus continues to spread in largely unvaccinated populations globally, the more likely it is that a variant that can overcome our vaccines and treatments will emerge. If that happens, we could be close to square one.
Importantly, right now, the urgent things haven’t changed: wearing masks indoors, increasing testing, social distancing, isolating if positive (with support to do so) and vaccination will all help to drive down transmission and protect against illness. We will probably never know for certain how or where Omicron originated, but we must continue to protect the most vulnerable as a priority, including immune-compromised people, the elderly and healthcare workers.
It is understandable that countries are moving to use boosters to protect their populations. This must happen in parallel with ensuring global vaccine supply. Supply is finally increasing, and, with political will, it can be achieved. Rich countries, who have the majority of existing supply, must share more doses over the coming months.
Covid-19 has already killed millions and changed everyday life for us all, but we must do everything we can to avoid a return to lockdowns – a sign that public health has failed. World leaders, by continuing to ignore the warnings and focusing only on their national populations, are playing with fire and putting our hard-won progress at risk. It is unbelievable that the ACT-Accelerator is still having to plead for the funding urgently needed to end this pandemic.
It is crucial that world leaders see this for what it is: still the most urgent threat facing our world
This political drift and lack of leadership is prolonging the pandemic for everyone, with governments unwilling to really address inequitable access to the vaccines, tests and treatment. We are not yet in control of this pandemic – Omicron or an even worse variant could arise at any time. There have been wonderful speeches, warm words but not the actions needed to ensure fair access to what we know works and would bring the pandemic to a close.
Even before we learned of this new variant, the global picture was already deeply troubling. The fourth wave we are seeing in Europe and southern Africa will soon hit the US, central and south America, and Asia. As the UK passes the G7 presidency to Germany, and Italy hands G20 to Indonesia later this month, it is crucial that world leaders see this for what it is: still the most urgent threat facing our world.
We will only bring this pandemic to an end by working together globally and sharing access to all the vital public health tools needed to reduce transmission everywhere and save lives. It is staggering and utterly frustrating that, two years on, governments still haven’t woken up and realised this is in their enlightened, shared self-interest.
Acting in national self-interest will only ever perpetuate this crisis, trapping us in a cycle of waves, new variants, lost lives and continued economic and societal disruption.
No country should believe they are safe, purely because they’ve vaccinated their own populations. We can and must do better than this.
Dr Jeremy Farrar is director of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation