Is Vaccine Hoarding to Blame for Omicron COVID Variant Emerging From Africa?

Dr Peter Singer, special adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization, appeared to suggest on Thursday that the emergence of a "highly mutated" COVID-19 variant was down to vaccine hoarding by richer countries.

Singer tweeted: "How do you double down on inequity and injustice? Deny countries vaccines so they generate variants and then when they do impose travel restrictions."

Newsweek has contacted Singer for further comment.

His post sparked criticism on social media, with some Twitter users pointing out that vaccine supply no longer seemed to be a problem in South Africa, where the Omicron variant has been recorded. Several governments have imposed travel restrictions on the country in the past 24 hours.

The WHO has previously called for vaccine equity and has said new variants of the coronavirus are most likely to emerge in unvaccinated parts of the global population.

The Omicron variant has 32 mutations of its spike protein and has been described as the "most worrying we've seen" by the chief medical adviser to the U.K. Health and Security Agency. It is said to have twice the number of mutations as the highly transmissible Delta variant.

The variant has been found in Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana, as well as South Africa. Only 59 cases have been confirmed so far, but scientists are concerned about it spreading and potentially proving resistant to vaccines.

South Africa has seen a slower vaccination rate than many Western countries. About 28 percent of the population is vaccinated and 24 percent fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data figures up to November 24—higher than many other African countries but well below the government target for the end of the year.

In South Africa, vaccines quickly turned from a supply problem to a demand worry. Although there were initially shortages in supply, now many South Africans are skeptical about the vaccine and choosing not to receive it.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the South African government had asked Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to delay deliveries of vaccines because it has too much stock.

"There is a fair amount of apathy and hesitancy," Shabir Madhi told the news wire. Madhi led the clinical study for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa.

In response to the concerns about Omicron, the U.K. government added six southern African countries—South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini—to its red list for travel to England. Flights from those countries are banned from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. After this, travelers from those nations will have to quarantine in hotels.

Israel has brought in similar measures for those six countries, plus Mozambique. Singapore and Japan have also announced measures to restrict travel from South Africa and neighboring regions, while Australia and New Zealand say they are assessing the situation closely. The EU is reported to be considering banning flights too.

On Thursday, Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the U.K., told The Independent that flying in a "massive influx" of aid or vaccine supplies could help control the new variant.

Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology and director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said on Wednesday that the variant "likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient."

He added: "It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage. For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future."

South Africa vaccine
A healthcare worker administers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to a woman outside a polling station in Laudium, Pretoria, on November 1, during South Africa's local elections. About 24 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Phil Magakoe/Getty