We thought there was a light at end of the tunnel for the Covid nightmare, but then the Omicron variant showed its face to let us know we cannot get off the roller coaster just yet. Although uncertainty remains about current vaccines’ effectiveness against the variant, low vaccination figures in some European regions, next to lack of vaccine availability in the Global South, augur a dark future.
In a globalised world where cross border traveling is as common as domestic, it is more important than ever that Europe develops a clear common strategy to tackle the virus at home, as well as support vaccination programs in lower income countries.
Omicron is not only a Greek letter
Omicron is the latest Covid variant to make the headlines. It was first discovered in South Africa on 24th November but is suspected to have already been present in several other territories before the alarm was sounded. The variant has the global scientific community and governments worried as a high number of mutations in the protein spike of the virus (the part facilitating cellular infection) might make it more contagious than other variants and, more worryingly still, potentially more resistant to available vaccines.
As a result, various Governments have rushed to put in place travel and social interaction restrictions. In Europe these range from mandatory face covering in closed spaces and PCR tests for travellers in the UK, to strict lockdowns in The Netherlands and Austria. These new restrictions are resulting in frustration at best, and social unrest at worst. The rioting is being particularly felt in countries with new lockdowns, where protesters have taken to the streets to express their anger.
Scientists and public health authorities are working against the clock to assess the real impact of the variant on immunity so they can adapt vaccines accordingly.
Vaccine hesitancy in Europe
Vaccine hesitancy is however becoming a big headache for public health authorities. The cause of this hesitancy is a mixed combination of mostly unfounded concerns about vaccines side effects, historic distrust in pharma companies and conspiracy theories that spread through social media faster than the virus.
It is particularly being felt in countries like Bulgaria and Romania where only about a third of the population has been fully vaccinated. The rates are not much better in Poland or Estonia where just about 50 percent of the population have received their double shot. But even big economies such as Germany, Austria and the UK still have vaccination rates just below 70 percent.
With calls to provide booster jabs to maintain vaccine efficacy, and big gaps already existing between first and second jabs uptake rates across countries, European governments need to come together to find a way to increase vaccination rates.
The EU gets tough
As public health communication campaigns are proving insufficient, EU governments are getting impatient. Vaccination passes have become a normal feature of Italy’s and France’s day to day life, and Spain is not allowing any non-vaccinated foreign travellers into the country. Austria has gone a step further and recently announced that, starting from February 2022, vaccination will be compulsory in the country. Greece has also introduced mandatory vaccination for those over 60 and Germany has just introduced restrictions for those unvaccinated.
In an unusually bold statement for a Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen said this week that EU countries should discuss whether to make vaccinations mandatory. It is however unlikely that this will go down well with those sectors of the population who refuse to get vaccinated, and many governments will choose to stay clear from such measures.
The UK sticks to its libertarian views
Anyone familiar with the UK knows that the introduction of mandatory vaccination is as likely as Boris Johnson campaigning to re-join the EU in the next election. In a country where covid measures such as mask wearing enforcement has been virtually non-existent for fear of limiting the public’s freedom, such a strong state intervention would be widely rejected by citizens and policymakers alike.
England has reintroduced mandatory masks in closed spaces (except for hospitality) and PCR testing for travellers arriving in the country, but despite having confirmed the presence of the new variant in its territory, the UK is so far rejecting any type of lockdown or vaccination pass system.
Vaccine scarcity in the Global South
Viruses do not respect borders or economic and political unions and any battle against Covid needs to be global to be effective.
The Global South has been requesting access to these vaccines for the past year with little support so far. The same countries whose populations refuse to take the jab because of conspiracy theories are hoarding vaccines and not doing enough to help countries economically worse off to implement effective vaccination programmes. Any hope at the start of the pandemic of a global response to the virus, with requests from some world leaders and the World Health Organisation to make the vaccines patents available, were quickly crushed by economic interests. Rich countries are instead offering vaccine donations, but these are still insufficient.
A recipe for disaster
All’s well that ends well, but this just does not seem to end. Any hopes that the virus would gradually wear off are proving unfounded as countries enter a new wave of infections almost two years after the start of the pandemic. Although vaccines have managed significantly to lower the rates of hospitalisations and deaths, health systems throughout the world are still overburdened by the disease and its outcomes – exacerbated by low vaccination rates.
The only alternative to vaccines is more social restrictions to stop growing health care waiting lists (which are having already a terrible impact for those with cancer, cardiovascular disease and a long list of other illnesses) and people still losing their health and sometimes lives to the disease.
The EU and UK need to set aside their Brexit drama and work on a coordinated approach to increase vaccination rates and impose similar restrictions when needed. They also need to consider supporting temporary patent waivers and partnerships between pharmaceutical companies in the North and Global South.
This situation will not solve itself and quick action is needed before further deterioration of public trust and health systems. The Pi variant is just around the corner.