The discovery of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 in South Africa has renewed called for Brussels to abandon its steadfast defence of vaccine patents, which critics say is hindering efforts to vaccinate the whole world against COVID-19. Vocal critics of the EU are pointing to the Omicron variant, newly classified as a variant “of concern” by the WHO, as evidence for the importance of rich nations ensuring less wealthy countries receive full access to the vaccines they need.
The People’s Vaccine, which is made up of over 50 organisations calling for vaccine equity and the banishing of intellectual property rights, have held up the Omicron variant and a postponed World Trade Organisation summit as evidence for their demands.
They said in a statement: “The vaccine apartheid that rich countries and the WTO have refused to address is ultimately responsible for the decision to postpone vaccine talks.”
Sara Matthieu, representing the Greens at the European Parliament, said: “The rise of the Omicron variant must finally let the European Commission see the light: We won’t get out of this pandemic unless the whole world has access to affordable vaccines.”
She added: “Europe has to urgently put people’s health above pharma profits and support the waiver now.
“The postponement [of the WTO summit] is no excuse for inaction, as variants will continue to emerge.”
South Africa’s vaccination rates fall short of a quarter of the population, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
This falls a long way short of the approximately 70 percent which France and Germany reach.
The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa and has fuelled arguments for waiving intellectual property rights with the argument that variants will be less devastating to a recovering world if everyone in the developing world has access to vaccines.
They added that upcoming lab data “will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally”.
Moderna and Johnson & Johnson added that they were looking at the Omicron variant, testing how it reacts to their vaccine shots.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel commented: “From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves.”
He continued: “The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”
On Sunday, a third case of the Omicron variant was detected in the UK, following two cases being identified in Essex and Nottingham over the weekend.
The Government issued updated guidance on COVID-19 measures in response to the variant’s arrival in the UK, reinstating mandatory face mask rules in shops and on public transport in England.
The Department of Health and Social Care has said that an emergency G7 meeting of health ministers will be held on Monday to “discuss the developments on Omicron”.