End vaccine hoarding | Daily News

End vaccine hoarding

We cannot even see them unless with the aid of an electron microscope, but viruses can be virulent enough to cause mass casualties. Just over 100 years ago, the Spanish Flu claimed over 50 million lives and there have been many other plagues through the centuries that wiped out much of the population. The latest viral disease, Covid-19, has already led to over four million deaths.   

Viruses do not have any kind of brain or intelligence, but they are devious enough to change their structure from time to time in order to evade our in-built immune systems and any form of induced immunity – vaccines. They have no intention per se of killing anyone, all they want is to replicate and perpetuate. But the symptoms they cause can sometimes be so severe that the host dies.

It is in the very nature of viruses to mutate. This is why we never really gain immunity to the common cold or the ’flu, which is also caused by Coronaviruses. Even if the body develops immunity to one strain of the Coronavirus, it is completely helpless against another. Hence the need for annual flu shots in many Western countries.

The novel Coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is no different. It has already spawned many mutations or variants as the World Health Organization (WHO) calls them. Most of the Covid deaths around the world are now blamed on the Delta variant, which is at least 50 percent more transmissible than the original strain. It is also believed to be more virulent, though more research is being done in this regard. Moreover, patients infected with Delta have a higher viral load (the amount of viruses in their bodies).

With each variation, there is a possibility that the virus could breach our natural and induced defences. Scientists already believe that Delta can cause “breakthrough” infections even in some of those who are double vaccinated. This is a rather dangerous situation as thousands more can perish by the time vaccine makers come up with a new formula to beat a variant.

It is in this backdrop that policymakers and healthcare planners everywhere should be concerned about yet another variant, which has emerged from Colombia this time. The WHO is monitoring a new Coronavirus variant called “Mu,” which the agency says has mutations that have the potential to evade immunity provided by a previous Covid-19 infection or vaccination.

Mu – also known by scientists as B.1.621 – was added to the list of “variants of interest” on August 30, the WHO said in its weekly Covid epidemiological report published late Tuesday. Mu “has a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape,” the WHO wrote in its report. Worryingly, Mu has already been detected in 39 countries and medical professionals in Sri Lanka have warned that it could enter the country soon.

The variant contains genetic mutations which indicate that natural immunity, current vaccines or monoclonal antibody treatments may not work well against it as they do against the original ancestral virus, the WHO said. However, the Mu strain needs further study to confirm whether it will prove to be more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments.

Mu is the latest addition to the four variants “of concern,” including Delta, which was first detected in India and is the most prevalent variant currently circulating in the world; Alpha, first detected in the UK; Beta, first detected in South Africa, and Gamma, first detected in Brazil. A variant of concern is generally defined as a mutated strain that is more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments. Scientists are also keeping a close watch on four other variants of interest – including Lambda, first identified in Peru – that have caused outbreaks in multiple countries.

The only answer to this vicious circle of mutation is vaccinating much of the global population and developing vaccines that can tackle the new variants. Unfortunately, the world is still years away from this goal at the current rates of vaccination. Some rich countries have ordered so many vaccine doses, they can inoculate their citizens 10 times over. They are even contemplating giving a third (booster) shot to their senior citizens and those suffering from other health complications.  

At the other end of the scale, there are many African countries that are yet to begin their vaccination campaigns. Their residents will probably have to wait until 2023-24 to get their first jab as COVAX, the global vaccine sharing initiative flounders amidst funding and logistical constraints.  

Among developing nations, Sri Lanka is in an enviable position having received over 23 million vaccine doses and achieved a coverage of over 75 percent of the eligible population over 30. This campaign should gather pace until all above 12 are vaccinated.

But as long as rich countries hoard vaccines and inequality prevails in their distribution, the world will have to contend with further mutations of this contagion. Giving everyone access to the jab seems to be the most sensible solution that will benefit all countries, rich and poor.

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