New Covid variants are a danger until the whole world is vaccinated

People wearing protective face masks wait to receive a vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, India, April 26, 2021.

Niharika Kulkarni | Reuters

LONDON — New Covid-19 variants are likely to keep on emerging until the whole world is vaccinated against the virus, experts warn, saying that the sharing of vaccines is not just an altruistic act but a pragmatic one.

“Until the whole world is vaccinated, not just rich Western countries, I think we are going to remain in danger of new variants coming along and some of those could be more virulent than omicron,” Dr. Andrew Freedman, a reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University Medical School, told CNBC on Thursday.

Viruses “tend to become milder” as they evolve, Freedman noted, but he cautioned that this “isn’t always the case.”

“It may well be with future variants that they are even more contagious, they may be milder, but we can’t say that with certainty.”

To date, 58.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, with 9.28 billion doses administered worldwide, according to Our World in Data.

The majority of adult populations are now fully vaccinated against Covid in wealthy, predominantly Western countries like those in Europe or the U.S., and in many of these countries shots are being rolled out to younger teens and even younger children.

But in low-income countries, only 8.5% of people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, Our World in Data shows.

‘Global escape strategy’

Since the start of the vaccine rollout, the World Health Organization has repeatedly implored richer countries to donate excess vaccines to the Covax initiative, an international scheme with the aim of ensuring more equitable global access to vaccines.

The mantra “no one is safe, unless everyone is safe” has often been heard from the WHO and other experts who say the pandemic won’t be over until everyone is protected.

“I can’t emphasize sufficiently that there’s no escaping that logic,” Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told CNBC earlier this week.

“This isn’t altruism or aid or anything, this is the global escape strategy from something that we’re all suffering together. Unless we can share out the vaccines and produce enough vaccines for everybody, the next variant is just around the corner.”

Covid vaccines have been proven to significantly protect people against severe infection, hospitalization and death so aside from the fact that more widespread vaccination coverage will potentially save millions of lives, it is also likely to help prevent new variants from emerging: Large numbers of unvaccinated people allow the virus to significantly spread far more easily and to mutate as it does so.

Gavi, the vaccine alliance which is part of the Covax scheme, says the initiative “is necessary because without it there is a very real risk that the majority of people in the world will go unprotected against SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) and this would allow the virus and its impact to continue unabated.”

Like all viruses, the coronavirus that first emerged in China in late 2019 has continued to mutate and evolve throughout the pandemic. Certain mutations have proven more effective at enabling the virus to spread. Variants such as the “alpha” strain, first discovered in the U.K. in September 2020 and named as such by the WHO, have gone on to spread around the world, usurping previous strains.

Then the “delta” variant, which was discovered in India in October 2020, supplanted the alpha variant and now we are contending with “omicron”: a far more transmissible variant than delta but a strain that’s appearing to cause less severe illness, according to a growing body of studies conducted in rapid time since omicron first emerged in southern Africa in November 2021.

Mandating vaccines?

Some countries have, and others are considering, whether to make vaccination mandatory but this throws up thorny ethical dilemmas, such as whether it’s ethical to vaccinate young children (who are, thankfully, rarely badly affected by Covid illness) in order to protect older, more vulnerable citizens.

No Covid vaccine is 100% effective either and the vaccinated can still contract and pass on an infection to others although vaccination reduces this risk.

Still, a growing number of countries have made, or will make, Covid vaccination compulsory for some workers such as health care and care home staff, while others are making it mandatory for certain age groups deemed more at risk; Greece has made vaccination compulsory for the over-60s while Italy on Wednesday made vaccination mandatory for anyone over the age of 50. Needless to say, compulsory shots are a controversial subject and have prompted protests from several quarters.

Freedman said it was preferable to encourage and educate people to be vaccinated rather than to mandate shots but still “it’s desirable to get as many of the population immunized as possible.”