The discovery of a new COVID-19 variant is causing panic around the world. Experts say Omicron, the new strain, has an unusually high number of mutations. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that Omicron poses a “very high” risk. There are fears it might be more highly transmissible and deadlier than previous strains.
In response, countries are re-introducing restrictions and other measures to counter its spread. Travel restrictions, for example, have been imposed on several countries from southern Africa, where Omicron was first detected. With more than 5.2 million people dead from COVID-19 to date, concerns about a potentially more infectious variant of the virus are warranted.
But the more effective, long-term solution to the pandemic is vaccination. According to the WHO, access to vaccines offers the best hope for driving down transmissions, saving lives, and securing a global economic recovery. The good news is that there are enough doses of the COVID-19 vaccines globally. The bad news? The vaccines are not equally available to everyone, everywhere.
In wealthy countries, anyone who wants the vaccines can get them because they are widely available. Some countries are even beginning to roll out booster shots. In low-income countries, on the other hand, people are struggling to access even a first dose of the vaccines. That is because these countries cannot afford the vaccines from the major pharmaceutical companies or produce them locally due to technology and licensing restrictions.
The lack of vaccines is particularly acute in Africa. Worldwide, 56 percent of people have received at least one vaccine dose. Every continent is above 50 percent except for Africa. As of early December, only about 10 percent of the population in Africa has received at least one dose. This gap in vaccination means that the coronavirus will continue to mutate, cross borders, and wreak havoc for everyone around the world.
Ongoing global efforts to mobilize resources and bolster vaccine access in Africa provide a glimmer of hope. They include a coalition of leading philanthropies and the COVAX program. Through COVAX, for instance, over 90 million vaccine doses have been delivered to the continent. But Africa is home to 1.2 billion people and raising vaccine coverage to the recommended 70 percent will require dramatic increases in vaccine delivery.
Until that happens, countries in Africa will have to strengthen other measures to contain the pandemic. Africa’s international partners, including development organizations, can provide important support. As FINCA International demonstrated with the recent donation of 1.5 million face masks for Ugandan school children, organizations have a role to play in easing the COVID-19 burden on low-income countries.