Omicron’s lesson: We’re not covid-safe until everyone is

News: The emergence of Omicron has evoked fresh demands for booster shots.

Rich countries continue to stockpile and administer booster shots, while people in many low and low-middle income countries wait for their first jab.

However, the emergence of new variants from low-vaccination-coverage regions essentially means that covid could be a never-ending battle.

The only way this pandemic can and should be fought is with global solidarity and vaccine equity. The idea of booster shots seems to be irrational.

Why the idea of booster shots is irrational?

Vaccine inequity: Omicron has emerged from Africa, a continent that has just 7% of its total population fully vaccinated. It is this vaccine inequity that weakens our global fight against the pandemic.

Therefore, a decision to introduce booster shots would further divert supplies from the neediest and widen vaccine inequity.

What steps should India take?

Focus on full-vaccination coverage: Though India has more vaccine supply than demand, India should not start providing booster shots. Rather, India should try to achieve full-vaccination coverage of those at the highest i.e. those aged 60-plus and 45-59 with co-morbidities.

Epidemiological and vaccine effectiveness studies should be commissioned: This will help to generate evidence that could guide decisions.

For instance, there are evidences that a booster dose of a vaccine on a different platform could be a better approach. The UK, which used the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for its primary schedule, has chosen mRNA vaccines for booster shots.

These mRNA vaccines are not yet available in India. So, India should revive negotiations with mRNA-jab makers, to keep such vaccines as an option in case of a health emergency.

Investment in vaccine research and development (R&D): The periodic emergence of new variants is a signal that future vaccines should be developed that are able to tackle multiple strains. In this context, adequate investment in vaccine R&D and domestic & international collaborations can help India tackle the new variants better in the future.

What is the way forward?

Increasing the vaccine accessibility and affordability is the key to control the emergence of new variants. It can be done by

First, granting voluntary licensing and transfer of technology. This can increase dose production at a larger scale.

In this context, India and South Africa’s proposal at the WTO for a temporary waiver of intellectual-property protection for covid vaccines needs to be favourably considered.

Second, COVAX-abundant nations should share a fixed portion of their stock with a global pool.

Source: This post is based on the article “Omicron’s lesson: We’re not covid-safe until everyone is” published in The Hindu on 1st Dec 2021.

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