17 Mar 2021

The Pandemic That Won’t End

COVID-19 Variants and the Peril of Vaccine Inequity

Every struggle against a pandemic is a race against time. Human intelligence, scientific know-how, and technology try to outstrip the microbe’s capacity for rapid change. The human species produces a new generation on average about every 20 to 30 years; microbes produce a new generation in minutes to hours. Each of those reproductive cycles gives the virus the opportunity to mutate. Many of these inevitable mutations will be insignificant or even detrimental to the microbe’s survival, but some will make the germ better suited to the pressures of its environment—and more dangerous to humans.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year, variants of concern have been identified in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. They will not be the last. Scientists fear that some of these new strains may be resistant to the recently produced COVID-19 vaccines. As a result, the development of novel coronavirus variants threatens to extend the pandemic even as the rollout of vaccines has promised to bring it to an end.

This pressure makes vaccine access more important, not less. New mutations can develop when the virus is able to spread through unprotected populations. The best way to head off the development of dangerous variants is to have as many people as possible protected from infection in the first place. The current global COVID-19 vaccine regime, however, is not fit for that purpose. Millions of people in high-income countries may have already received vaccines, but many low- and middle-income countries have yet to issue a single dose.

Such inequity is not merely unjust but hazardous. Vaccine nationalism—the understandable desire to tend to one’s own citizens first before worrying about others—won’t save wealthy countries if new variants of the disease prolong suffering and disruption elsewhere. Collective action to immunize the world from COVID-19 may sound idealistic, but it is a practical necessity.

continue reading:  foreignaffairs.com 

COVID-19 Vaccine