Recently, the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus was found in South Africa. The arrow of doubt points to South Africa because a majority of Omicron cases were discovered there, and a few others found in other countries originated from there.
But why has it seen a spike in South Africa? It is because a large portion of its population is yet to be vaccinated. Hence, this variant got a platform for replication and mutation. As we all know, replication is directly proportional to mutation; therefore, we got this new variant.
Now, the question is, why is this replication happening. The world has seen an inequity in vaccine distribution, and this Omicron variant is an outcome of this.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 7.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Can you guess what the number in high-income countries is? It is nine times higher there.
In Bangladesh, approximately 36% of the eligible population received at least the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccines. In comparison, only 22% received two doses since last week.
Last year, when the rich countries were busy hoarding coronavirus vaccines, WHO tried to warn us that inequity in vaccine distribution would be a headache for the entire world.
When a country has low vaccine coverage, it automatically creates a platform for the virus to replicate. If South Africa had vaccinated a sizable portion of its population on time, this variant might not have become a source of concern for many.
Bangladesh is also under threat because we have not yet vaccinated the majority of our population. However, if developed countries had not hoarded vaccines, we and other African countries could have been partially protected. Ultimately, none of us benefited from this; rather, we are all in danger now.
Omicron's spike protein-producing genome has around 32 mutations. Through these mutations, it has become more effective in binding itself with a human receptor. As a result, it has a high transmissible capability, sometimes 500 to 1,000 times higher than the Delta variant.
The good news is that only the spike protein's genome has mutated, not the entire genome, so we can still rely on vaccines.
On the other hand, it has been posited that this change in spike protein could change the entire game as it will almost certainly make vaccines less effective.
As a result, the world is returning to square one, with developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries all under threat. Vaccine nationalism saved no one, neither those who tried to resort to it, nor the others.
If we take a more global approach from now on in which the vaccine formula is shared with all countries, we may be able to save the world.
In this approach, all the countries can contribute as per their ability, but take vaccines based on their demand.
This way, our pharmaceutical companies could be used as a plant to produce and export vaccines. It could be an investment opportunity for developed countries as well, from which they could profit later.
We cannot be entirely sure that Omicron has not entered Bangladesh. Just a few days back, around 150 people have returned to our country from African countries. So, there is a good chance that we already have it and/or will detect the Omicron variant very soon.
Given the circumstances, we may impose strict restrictions on ports in order to prevent the next massacre. Ensuring Covid-19 testing at ports and allowing only vaccinated passengers to enter could help us deal with this situation.
Dr Be-Nazir Ahmed is a former director of Disease Control at the Directorate General of Health Services.