On 23 November South African medical authorities identified the Omicron variant of the virus behind Covid. It had probably been circulating for a while before that, and has already spread to many countries. This sharpens the urgency of requisitioning the patents and other assets of Big Pharma. It focuses three facts:
1. Covid can’t be abolished by a lockdown or even a vaccination drive. Governments which say they will “send coronavirus packing” are blustering.
2. Curbs like mask mandates, work-from-home rules, vax-or-test rules for entering higher-risk spaces, and even full lockdowns, only delay Covid spread. But delay makes time for vaccines to get out, treatments to improve, hospitals to avoid being overwhelmed, mutations to slow down. With winter and Omicron coming, we need delays.
3. Vaccines are not 100%, but they limit spread, and limit severity even more. Vaccinating the world is urgent.
Because of vaccines, the Covid death rate in the UK now is, despite everything, only a tenth of what it was in early 2020 when case counts were similar.
Scientists say that Omicron probably evades existing immunity from vaccines and prior infection to some (unknown) degree. It may also be more transmissible anyway. We don’t know whether it causes worse, similar, or milder disease.
Pfizer says it can probably get a revised vaccine, tweaked to target Omicron, onto the streets in 100 days. In the meantime, existing vaccines or boosters are still urgent, since they almost surely give some protection; and sustainable covid-distancing curbs can slow the spread.
Scientists’ best guess is that Omicron evolved through repeated mutations of the virus in a single patient ill with Covid for a long time. But it has evolved in Africa, where still only 7% are fully vaccinated.
More vaccine supplies have been arriving in Africa since October. But richer countries send such supplies as an afterthought, often at short notice, often near the vaccines’ expiry dates, so it’s difficult to use the supplies efficiently.
Africa’s vax rate is still around 0.1 doses per 100 people, as it has been since mid-August. The worldwide rate is still around 0.4/ 100/ day, largely static since May.
There would be limits to the speed of vax production and distribution even with the best social organisation. But over the course of 2021 new vaccines have been approved. Since May there’s been time to build new production lines and increase roll-out.
Probably I was wrong to follow the World Health Organization (and many scientists) in being sceptical about booster jabs. Boosters seem to help a lot. But, four months on from “boosters” starting, it also looks as if by now, with policies that flouted Big Pharma’s “rights” to profit, the world could have delivered both boosters and wide vaccination in poorer countries.
The EU is only now saying it could favour “limited exemptions” to Big Pharma’s patent rights in order to expand production. (The USA came for a full waiver back in May). The labour movement should push for maximum waivers, and indeed for full public requisitioning of Big Pharma’s assets.
Longer term, and short-term too, essential to underpin reducing the toll of Covid is increased social equality and social provision: full isolation pay for all; ample health care and social care with sufficient numbers of well-paid health workers and careworkers; improved housing, with less overcrowding.