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Omicron exposes our pandemic failures

They say a week is a long time in politics – last week we discovered it’s a long time in a pandemic as well. We started the week anxiously watching the rising Covid cases in Europe, and wondering what new restrictions might be heading our way for Christmas.

At the same time here in Geneva journalists were preparing for a special session of the World Health Assembly, swiftly followed by a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Both meetings were set to be dominated by the pandemic; the WHA’s sole agenda item was a global pandemic treaty aimed at improving our response to disease outbreaks. The WTO was to discuss a proposal from India and South Africa to waive patents on life saving vaccines and treatments.

But waiting in the wings to disrupt all our plans was Omicron. While not enough is known yet about the new variant to determine exactly how serious its impact could be, it is serious enough to force the WTO to cancel the ministerial, and for WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to deplore, again, what he called the ‘fundamental weaknesses’ of our pandemic response.

So where exactly have we gone wrong? That’s the subject of our Inside Geneva podcast this week, in which I talk to Bruce Aylward of the WHO, Michelle Childs of Drugs for Neglected Diseases, and Federica Zamatto of Doctors Médecins sans Frontières.

Successes and failures

If we take stock of the almost two years of the pandemic, we do see some successes – vaccines developed in record time. But there are also stark failures – 50% of the world’s population has yet to receive a single dose.

More than 75% of all vaccines have been bought up by wealthy countries. In Africa, just 5% of people have been vaccinated.

The WHO’s Bruce Aylward, like his colleagues at WHO headquarters in Geneva, has repeatedly urged an equitable and coordinated vaccine roll out, in which the vulnerable and health workers worldwide are prioritised. The vaccine statistics, two years on, are a source of real frustration that the pandemic is being prolonged unnecessarily.

“How do you solve this in the longer term? You don’t want to be in this situation if this happens again,” he told Inside Geneva. “This could happen next month, if the wrong variant comes out.”

His words proved to be prescient; just a few days after I talked to him, the WHO declared Omicron a ‘variant of concern’. Wealthy countries in particular swung into action, many of them imposing travel restrictions on southern Africa.

Signs of a broken system

For Michelle Childs of Drugs for Neglected Diseases, the vaccine imbalance mirrors an approach to medicine that has for years been fundamentally flawed. Her organisation is dedicated to finding treatments for illnesses which claim many lives – but, because they tend not to affect wealthy populations, they receive very little investment.

“We have not managed to ensure equitable access, we have left decisions to narrow national interests and commercial decision making,” she says, pointing out that this is a pattern across funding for medical research and development.

Now the narrow national interests have come to the forefront again. African countries have reacted angrily to the travel restrictions, which they regard as unnecessarily punitive (after all Botswanan and South African scientists analysed and shared information about Omicron in record time).

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has come to their defence, warning wealthy countries, in a strongly worded statement, that “the people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world”.

Mr Guterres wants countries “to consider repeated testing for travellers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures”, by this of course he means the things the WHO constantly reminds us to do: wear masks, keep some distance, avoid big crowds, and contact trace.

Vaccine complacency

But, despite the rising cases in Europe, it seems we have become a little complacent, or that’s what WHO chief Tedros thinks. Vaccines are not the silver bullet, and certainly not in countries like Switzerland, Austria and Germany where there remains a large degree of vaccine hesitancy. Meanwhile, many of us have returned to an almost normal social life, and of course that’s understandable after so many lockdowns, but it may be a mistake to relax our guard too much.

As the WHO has repeatedly told us, there is only one way out of this pandemic, and that is together. That means solidarity and sharing. But not the kind of sharing that’s happening now, with, as Bruce Aylward told me, wealthy countries dumping, unannounced or at very short notice, huge supplies of about to expire vaccines (many of which require end to end cold chain) on low-income countries. “That’s a heck of a way to run a pandemic,” he sighed.

Getting out of the pandemic also means solidarity at home and, apologies to those who may still be reluctant, it really does mean getting vaccinated if you haven’t already, and rolling up your sleeve for your booster when invited.

“We have to stay optimistic,” says MSF’s Federica Zamatto. “We have the tools to make it go right. We need to have a collective sense of solidarity, and to be able to look beyond our own little horizons. I like to think that because we are all together in this boat that we can learn from the mistakes that have been made and to address them.”

Let’s hope she’s right. But the responses to Omicron so far leave an uncomfortable feeling that we might be about to make some of those mistakes all over again.

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