The failure of wealthy nations to get vaccines to the developing world is “coming back to haunt us”, Gordon Brown has warned, as experts said the emergence of variants such as B.1.1.529 could have been avoided if jabs had been more fairly distributed.
Writing in the Guardian, the Labour former prime minister said the world had been “forewarned” that a lack of vaccines in poorer countries could have serious consequences for the pandemic.
He said there had been embarrassing failures to meet promises on fair distribution of vaccines by the west, highlighting figures that show only 3% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated compared with more than 60% in the rest of the world.
“In the absence of mass vaccination, Covid is not only spreading uninhibited among unprotected people but is mutating, with new variants emerging out of the poorest countries and now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people in the richest countries of the world,” Brown said.
He said world leaders now needed a global accord to ensure better distribution and accused the EU of “neocolonialism” in its approach to buying up vaccines made in South Africa.
“The good news is that our medical genius has ensured that the new … variant has been identified quickly; is being sequenced at speed; and, if it proves not only more transmissible but immune to current vaccines, a new vaccine will soon emerge,” Brown said. “But given the contrast between the success of our scientists and the failure of our global leaders, only a herculean effort starting this week can allay fears that new mutations among unvaccinated people in the least-protected places will take Covid into a third year – with even fifth, sixth and seventh waves.”
Scientists have described B.1.1.529, detected in countries including South Africa, as the “most worrying we’ve seen”, with it found to contain a large number of mutations that may not only make it more transmissible, but could also help it to evade the body’s immune response.
Experts such as Tim Bierley, a pharma campaigner at Global Justice Now, said the rise of the variant had been “entirely avoidable” and that conditions for its emergence had been created by low- and middle-income countries being “actively prevented” by the UK from having equitable access to vaccines.
“For more than a year, South Africa, Botswana, and most countries have been calling for world leaders to waive intellectual property on coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments, so they can produce their own jabs,” he said. “It’s a vital measure that will be discussed at next week’s World Trade Organization conference. But, so far, the UK and EU have recklessly blocked it from making progress.
“If and when this new variant starts to tear through the world, remember that the British government has led opposition to the plan that could have stopped it.”
Dr Ayoade Alakija, a co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said: “I am so angry right now. Even if the moral argument didn’t work for them, if we had lost sight of our common morality, and common humanity, then even from an enlightened self-interest perspective, surely, surely, they understood that if they did not vax the world as equitably and as quickly as possible, that what we were going to see was variants springing up that we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to control.”
Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said new variants were likely to arise in any setting where the virus was circulating at high levels, including in the UK.
Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), warned that the approach of vaccinating and revaccinating increasingly low-risk people in wealthy countries would “rebound on rich countries”, noting they would end up with more deaths and more economic damage as a direct consequence.
“There isn’t any need for altruism here, just hard-nosed self interest – but somehow the politicians continue to fail to grasp this and those of us advising them are told very clearly that anything outside our borders is outside our remit,” he told the Guardian.
Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College, emphasised there were additional complexities around B.1.1.529, as South Africa had excess vaccine stocks that it could not use due to vaccine hesitancy. Research has suggested the problem is larger among white adults, with one study from August revealing just over half were willing to receive a Covid jab compared with about 75% of black adults.
But Alakija said the issues were unrelated. “Had South Africa and indeed the rest of Africa been allowed access to vaccines at the same time as the rich countries of the world there wouldn’t have been uncontrolled spread replication and subsequent mutation of the virus,” she said.