Liberia: Global Vaccine Inequality Fuels Hesitancy and Variants

Illustration by Zoe Peterson, Deseret News.

When my brother contracted the Omicron variant of the coronavirus then passed it on to me and his wife, who had just had major brain surgery, I shared his nervousness. Thankfully, my sister-in-law and I did not exhibit any symptoms, but my brother showed some apparent signs of the virus, including running nose, headaches, and joint pains. 

We didn’t experience any severe illness because we were vaccinated and treated ourselves to various homemade cocktails of ginger, tea, and lemon – Omicron is milder than Delta and other earlier versions of the virus. But the situation is different for millions of people in the global south – developing and low-income countries where large populations of unvaccinated people are causing the virus to spread and mutate unabated, worrying new variants like Omicron will continue to surface.

There are huge inequalities in the availability of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. The World Health Organization reports that less than 10% of people in Africa have received a single dose, which puts them needlessly at risk, compared to 70% across North America or 65% in Europe.

The fastest way to end the pandemic is to ensure that vaccines are available everywhere. But, right now, only a few countries have widespread access to vaccines, which means the virus will continue to mutate, cross borders, and wreak havoc for everyone around the world.

That is why in my capacity as a Brooklyn Park city council member and a public health practitioner, I am working with U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn) to urge the Biden administration to support global vaccine distribution.

Last week, Senator Smith and her colleague Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-La.) supported a bipartisan amendment to improve global vaccine access, which was signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Expanding worldwide access to COVID-19 vaccines is central to ending the pandemic,” said Sen. Smith. “The amendment will take important steps towards slowing the spread of this virus, allowing the United States to improve COVID-19 vaccine access for low- and middle-income countries, and leading the world out of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The COVID-19 vaccination effort, from testing to vaccine development, is the most extensive public health intervention in history – and yet, its success has been fluid. The world’s most vulnerable people have been denied their fair share of COVID antigens, while in wealthier countries, the main problem is not access but hesitancy.

The urgency now is to protect the world with COVAX, an initiative co-led by WHO to distribute vaccines equally across the globe. It shipped out a record 300 million doses in December but still fell far short of its goal of shipping 1 billion does by the end of 2021. As the Omicron variant outspreads Delta, the focus of the U.S. government must be to strengthen this global vaccine effort because it is the only way to blunt and alter the course of this pandemic.

Now that we already know so much about Omicron so quickly is primarily thanks to the excellent science carried out in South Africa and the speed with which they shared that work with the rest of the world. If the fruit of that labor and spirit of the partnership only benefits people in wealthy countries, in the form of third or fourth boosters for protected people. In contrast, the world has left countries like South Africa on their own and isolated, then what motivation will they – or other countries – have to be so transparent the next time a variant emerges?

Whichever paths we choose, one thing is clear: We will not succeed at protecting ourselves and our community against COVID-19 until we understand vaccine hesitancy as an emotional, social, and cultural problem and apply tailored solutions accordingly.

Hoarding vaccines by rich countries is not only unethical and immoral, but it also defeats the tenets of public health.