When news of the new coronavirus variant, now dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organization, intruded on Thanksgiving weekend like a most unwelcome guest, there were widespread calls to accelerate global vaccination efforts to reach poor and remote populations. And because the variant was identified by the extraordinary scientists of South Africa, where the vaccination rate is under 25 percent, these calls had an I-told-you-so element that, while well-intentioned, is probably counterproductive in the long run.
“The new variant is exactly what the experts I’ve talked to have warned about over and over and over again,” wrote New York Times COVID writer Apoorva Mandavilli, a critic of booster shots in rich countries. She warned that giving third jabs to young people in wealthy nations while “leaving millions of vulnerable people elsewhere without a single dose is dangerous. For everyone.” On the one hand, Mandavilli is right that variants are inevitable as long as COVID-19 is circulating freely among the human population of Earth. But expanding the global vaccine push is unlikely to rid us of the threat of new, holiday-wrecking mutations anytime soon.
The United States and its wealthy allies should absolutely invest substantially more resources in getting vaccines to countries that need them in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. But we also shouldn’t be operating under any illusions that this effort will end the menace of further variants. For one thing, we don’t know, and may never know, where Omicron came from. It could have originated in one of the relatively highly vaccinated countries of Europe before marauding through South Africa and neighboring countries. Or it could have originated in South Africa itself, where hesitancy, rather than supply, is largely (though not exclusively) the issue.