Rise of a new coronavirus variant in Africa looks like the disaster scenario experts warned of if rich nations hoarded vaccines for themselves




A man receiving a coronavirus vaccination on a train in South Africa.REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo
A man receiving a coronavirus vaccination on a train in South Africa.REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo  
  • A new coronavirus variant was found in southern Africa. Experts worry it could be the worst so far.

  • Scientists had warned that a dangerous new variant could emerge if there isn't global vaccine access.

  • They said all countries need vaccines before wealthy ones get boosters. Rich nations didn't listen.

As coronavirus vaccines were produced, approved, and rolled out, health experts said the doses needed to make it around the world, not just to the richest countries.

This was needed, they said, to reduce the rates of death and serious illness in poorer nations, and to protect their populations.

They also pointed to another reason: The more the virus spreads, the more likely it is to mutate, and result in a strain that could become more dangerous to everyone, including the vaccinated.

A worrying variant found

A new variant, dubbed B.1.1.529, has been mostly identified in Botswana and South Africa, as well as Hong Kong, where it was imported by a traveller.

A relatively small number of cases have been discovered so far, but the variant has been spreading rapidly, officials said.

Experts are describing B.1.1.529 as worrying, pointing to its high number of mutations - meaning it could render existing antibodies, vaccines, and treatments less effective, as Insider's Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reported.

Scientists are currently trying to figure out if it's more infectious, or more deadly, or both.

Many experts already say it's the worst variant they have seen since the pandemic began.

It's not clear exactly where the new variant developed. It could have been in South Africa or Botswana, or in a neighboring country, or somewhere else entirely.

But both those countries have low vaccination rates, and have documented the struggle in securing doses, including accusing rich nations of hoarding vaccines.

As of Thursday, just 23.51% people in South Africa and 19.58% in Botswana have been vaccinated, Our World in Data reported.

A graph showing the vaccine rates of South Africa and Botswana to many of the world
A graph showing the vaccine rates of South Africa and Botswana to many of the world's wealthiest countries.  

This means the nightmare scenario could be arriving in just the way experts warned about.

Expert warned of this for months

The World Health Organization had repeatedly urged richer countries to share or buy fewer vaccine doses, and make sure poorer nations have their first doses before distributing booster shots.

Those countries have not listened.

The WHO experts said this wider vaccine distribution was needed in part to stop new, dangerous variants from emerging. WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan warned in August that she was "afraid" that booster campaigns "will only lead to more variants."

Other experts have warned of the same scenario for months.

Ken Shadlen, professor of development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Insider in March that if global vaccine inequality persisted, "it's going to potentially undermine the health benefits of all that we're doing with lockdowns and vaccines."

He said it wasn't inevitable that a vaccine-escaping variant would emerge if the virus keeps spreading, but that "it would take a lot of confidence to believe that it's not going to, if it keeps spreading."

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who advised Joe Biden on COVID-19 during his presidential transition, expressed the same concerns to Insider in March.

He said that efforts to end the pandemic would be difficult if there is "largely uncontrolled transmission in the low-and-middle-income countries," even if the world's richest nations have done widespread vaccinations.

Countries like the UK and Germany are restricting travel from a number of African nations in a bid to stop the spread of the new variant.

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