‘The next variant is just around the corner’: Experts warn the world’s at risk until all are vaccinated

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People wearing protective face masks wait to receive a vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, India, April 26, 2021.

Niharika Kulkarni | Reuters

LONDON — New Covid-19 variants are likely to keep on emerging until the whole world is vaccinated against the virus, experts warn, saying that the sharing of vaccines is not just an altruistic act but a pragmatic one.

“Until the whole world is vaccinated, not just rich Western countries, I think we are going to remain in danger of new variants coming along and some of those could be more virulent than omicron,” Dr. Andrew Freedman, a reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University Medical School, told CNBC on Thursday.

Viruses “tend to become milder” as they evolve, Freedman noted, but he cautioned that this “isn’t always the case.”

“It may well be with future variants that they are even more contagious, they may be milder, but we can’t say that with certainty.”

To date, 58.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, with 9.28 billion doses administered worldwide, according to Our World in Data.

The majority of adult populations are now fully vaccinated against Covid in wealthy, predominantly Western countries like those in Europe or the U.S., and in many of these countries shots are being rolled out to younger teens and even younger children.

But in low-income countries, only 8.5% of people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, Our World in Data shows.

‘Global escape strategy’

Since the start of the vaccine rollout, the World Health Organization has repeatedly implored richer countries to donate excess vaccines to the Covax initiative, an international scheme with the aim of ensuring more equitable global access to vaccines.

Gavi, the vaccine alliance which is part of the Covax scheme, says the initiative “is necessary because without it there is a very real risk that the majority of people in the world will go unprotected against SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) and this would allow the virus and its impact to continue unabated.”

Like all viruses, the coronavirus that first emerged in China in late 2019 has continued to mutate and evolve throughout the pandemic. Certain mutations have proven more effective at enabling the virus to spread. Variants such as the “alpha” strain, first discovered in the U.K. in September 2020 and named as such by the WHO, have gone on to spread around the world, usurping previous strains.

Then the “delta” variant, which was discovered in India in October 2020, supplanted the alpha variant and now we are contending with “omicron”: a far more transmissible variant than delta but a strain that’s appearing to cause less severe illness, according to a growing body of studies conducted in rapid time since omicron first emerged in southern Africa in November 2021.

Mandating vaccines?

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