The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the pandemic may not end if countries engage in a growing trend of vaccine nationalism.
One year since the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “we will not end the pandemic anywhere until we end it everywhere”.
Dr Tedros’ comments came after the European Union announced it would control exports of vaccines to a list of countries including Australia, sparking fears of global battles to secure vaccine supplies.
Germany is already ordering vaccines for 2022 amid supply shortages and growing frustration in Europe at the slow pace of vaccination.
Dr Tedros warned the world was in danger of squandering its best opportunity to end the pandemic.
“A year ago, I said the world had a ‘window of opportunity’ to prevent widespread transmission of this new virus. Some countries heeded that call; some did not”, he told journalists.
“Now, vaccines are giving us another window of opportunity to bring the pandemic under control. We must not squander it.
“There is now the real danger that the very tools that could help to end the pandemic – vaccines – may exacerbate those same inequalities.
“Vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it’s ultimately short-sighted and self-defeating.”Dr Tedros said the pandemic would not be over until it ended everywhere and highlighted that there were more COVID cases in the past two weeks than the first six months of the pandemic.
“The world has come to a critical turning point in the pandemic”, Dr Tedros said.
“But it’s also a turning point in history: faced with a common crisis, can nations come together in a common approach?”
Global infections to date total more than 102 million and there have been more than 2.2 million deaths. The worst-affected countries are the USA, India, Brazil, the UK and Russia.
Meanwhile, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate and vaccine makers will need to be “nimble” in responding to highly-infectious variants of the virus, US President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser has warned.
Dr Anthony Fauci, in a White House briefing, said the emergence of a treatment-resistant variant in South Africa – one that is also less responsive to all vaccines developed so far – is “a wake-up call.”
The South African variant, known the B.1.351 strain, can reportedly evade antibodies provided by coronavirus treatments and is proving to be less effective against available vaccines.
While Dr Fauci said vaccine makers will have to be “nimble to be able to adjust readily” to tweaking the vaccines already going into peoples’ arms.
A few days earlier, Dr Fauci said that the new mRNA technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines made it easier to adapt to new strains.
Moderna is already experimenting with a third ‘booster’ shot to overcome resistance fro the South African variant.
The much-coveted Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are designed be given in two shots, a few weeks apart. If a third shot is required, this will put even further strain on the complicated, and now vexatious roll-out of vaccines around the world.
The rest of the world held hostage by Europe
On Friday night, the European Union confirmed it will control coronavirus vaccine exports – including to Australia – raising fears of a global battle as the World Health Organisation warned it was a “worrying trend”.
The EU said it would introduce export controls on various vaccines produced in the bloc in a bid to secure supply for its citizens amid criticism it’s not vaccinating people fast enough.
“The protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no choice but to act,” the European Commission said.
What this seems to mean is that the rest of the world is left blowing its nose while Europeans citizens get their three shots, instead of two.
Some good news
Despite some grumbling from Germany – which recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine shouldn’t be given to people over 65 because of an absence of sufficient trial data – the EU has given full approval to the vaccine.
It will be made available to people of all ages.
It’s also one of the vaccines that the EU has locked up for its own use.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is what most Australians will be given – and the EU approval might encourage the Therapeutic Goods Administration to give full approval here.
Australia has committed to 53.8 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses in 2021, “covering the whole of population requirements.” Twenty million are being produced locally.
The federal government has maintained an optimistic tone regarding the vaccine roll-out in Australia – but the EU move means there is no real certainty about how and when that roll-out will occur.
Some more good news
Johnson & Johnson says its single-dose vaccine was 66 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 in a large trial against multiple variants across three continents.
This might seem a poor showing compared with vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which were about 95 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic illness in pivotal trials when given in two doses.
Those trials, however, were conducted mainly in the United States and before new variants emerged.
J&J’s main goal was the prevention of moderate to severe COVID-19, and the vaccine was 85 per cent effective in stopping severe disease and preventing hospitalisation across all geographies and against multiple variants 28 days after immunisation.
Which is good news indeed.
And with Europe’s strategy of keeping Pfizer and AstraZebneca supplies for its own people, it’s somewhat reassuring that another option has emerged. The J&J vaccine, however, is also less effective against the South African variants.
The rise of the variants is the next chapter in this pandemic’s wearying story.