As data on real-world infections in South Africa, where the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was first identified, suggest the mutated virus has an increased ability to reinfect people who have already had COVID-19, the new strain is also highlighting inequalities in the global pandemic response.
A study published on Thursday as a pre-print, which is still awaiting peer review, found that Omicron is at least 2.4-times more likely to reinfect someone who’s already had a COVID infection compared to the other variants that have been studied.
The research does not provide any new information about how effective the current vaccines are likely to be against Omicron, or how seriously ill people who catch it generally get. That data is still at least a week away.
Another study carried out in the U.K., however, has found that booster shots of all the major vaccines in use provide a huge increase in both antibodies, which can help avoid an infection, and the body’s “T-cell” response, which can help limit the severity of an infection. That could prove vital as researchers expect the number and type of mutations seen in Omicron may make the vaccines less effective, to some degree, at preventing infection.
“This T-cell response gives us hope,” Professor Saul Faust, who headed the trial that was published Thursday in The Lancet, told The Times newspaper. “The T-cell responses to [the original variant], Beta and Delta are very similar. And we would hope that we would see something similar for Omicron. Our hope as scientists is that protection against hospitalization and death will remain intact.”
The British government’s top health official said the “data clearly shows why it is so important to get your booster — the top-up jab will massively drive up your protection against the virus . . . With the possible threat of the Omicron variant, it is more important than ever to get vaccinated.”
But that call, which has been echoed by U.S. officials as the best way for the country to brace for the expected spread of Omicron, is only possible because of the huge vaccine supplies available to wealthy nations.
As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, many countries are nowhere near offering booster shots, and Omicron’s emergence and fast spread in South Africa has injected the variant right into the heart of the global debate over vaccine inequality.
In the turf war between Omicron and the previously discovered Delta variant, the new strain is clearly winning in South Africa, accounting for a meteoric rise in new infections.
The scientists warned us
Since the pandemic began, health experts around the globe have issued a consistent war cry, warning that nobody will be safe until everyone is safe. Allowing the virus to continue spreading, and mutating, in unvaccinated populations anywhere on the planet gives it the chance to evolve into more dangerous variants. So far, only about 7% of the total population of Africa is fully vaccinated.
“It is the following of politics and not science that got us to where we are right now. Had we done the scientific thing — had we done what the scientists were saying in January, February 2020, we would not be now where we are,” Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union’s Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told CBS News.
\What the science tells us, according to Alakija, is that unless and until there is global vaccine equity, the virus will continue to mutate.
In the two countries where Omicron was first identified, vaccine supplies are dwindling fast. Botswana has already administered 86% of its supply, according to Alakija, while South Africa has used 78% of its jabs.
Compare that to wealthy nations, where it’s predicted that 100 million vaccine doses are about to expire on shelves.
To Alakija, the problem is clear: Wealthy nations are hoarding vaccines.
“A lot of people in the U.S. and the U.K. think that, you know, we’re all here with our hands out, saying, ‘Oh, please, please give me vaccines for free.’ No. We’re saying, ‘Get out of the queue so that we can get to the front of the line and get our own — and pay for them.'”
Travel ban side effects
But supply isn’t the only problem. Distribution is also complicating matters, as many African countries lack the logistical capabilities to get shots into people’s arms. And the raft of travel bans imposed on southern African countries, including by the United States, soon after South African scientists alerted the world to the new variant have further isolated the region.
To Alakija and many others on the continent, the travel bans seem not only unproductive, but deeply unfair.
Californian Monica Glass was visiting her husband’s family in South Africa when her flights were cancelled.
“Southern Africa is the only place where they instilled these travel bans, right?” she told CBS News. “I just I feel like it’s unfair. It’s not right.”
And she has been dealt another blow: While waiting to make new travel arrangements to get back home, Glass, who is fully vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19 and is now isolating in Cape Town.
“I have mild symptoms,” she told Patta. “I’m a nurse, so I work in a COVID unit — have been around COVID, and this is the first that I have had COVID as far as I’m aware.”
Her immediate concern is how she’ll get home to her three children when her infection does clear.
The travel bans are not only causing chaos for individual travelers, but further complicating the work of the South African scientists racing to help the world better understand the new Omicron variant: With fewer planes flying in and out to ferry vital medical supplies, there’s fear that South Africa could run out of the chemical compounds needed to run tests on the new strain.