Governments around the world, Japan among them, have responded with speed and determination to the discovery of the omicron variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus. After the dithering that marked earlier efforts, this seriousness is to be applauded.
Overreaction is a danger, however: Much about omicron remains unknown. The most important thing that can be done to deal with omicron, and future mutations, is to get vaccines to the poorest nations where vaccination rates are appallingly low. Failure to inoculate the most vulnerable will ensure that COVID-19 stays with us and remains a threat.
The omicron variant was first reported by South Africa last week and has since been found in some two dozen countries around the globe. Health officials believe that it is more widespread than that. Two cases have been identified in Japan: One is a diplomat from Namibia while the other individual recently visited Peru and had no contact with the first person.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has moved quickly to contain the threat and prevent the further infiltration of the disease. No foreigners, including those with residential status, from South Africa, Namibia and eight other African nations will be allowed in the country until further notice.
The list of countries whose visitors will have to quarantine at government-designated facilities upon arrival in Japan has been lengthened. The flexibility that allowed foreign residents to enter Japan will be reduced and allowed only under “truly extraordinary circumstances.” The Japanese government initially asked airlines to stop accepting reservations for international flights to Japan, but quickly walked that back after an outcry.
The measures make some sense. The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated omicron a “variant of concern,” and has warned that it is likely to spread globally and poses a “very high” risk. At the same time, the WHO has warned against implementing blanket travel bans, as they are likely to be ineffective — the evidence makes clear that the variant has already proliferated — while exacting a heavy toll on countries that can least afford it.
The COVID-19 coronavirus is constantly mutating. Thousands of variants have been identified, and more than 20 have become an integral part of coronavirus DNA and replicated sufficiently to get their own names. Omicron has raised concern because it has about 30 mutations in the spike protein, an unusually high number.
Significantly, however, three big questions remain unanswered. Will omicron be more infectious? Will it be more lethal? Will it be less susceptible to existing vaccines? If the answer is no, then there is no cause for alarm. Earlier variants have demonstrated some worrisome characteristics but they faded and were ultimately overwhelmed by other strains.
Variants are inevitable; the pace of their emergence and our susceptibility to them are not fixed, however. The most important factor in their evolution and the threat they pose is the size of unvaccinated populations and the reservoirs in which they can develop.
The size of vaccine disparities is eye-opening. Just 331 million of the 15 billion total COVID-19 doses in the world have gone to low-income countries. While vaccine rates in the developed world usually average between 60% and 70% (and exceed 80% in some countries), they are half that in most parts of the developing world and in single digits in some nations. A mere 6% of the 1.2 billion people living in Africa have been vaccinated.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now a global health ambassador for the WHO, excoriated the world’s richest governments for their selfishness and lack of vision. “Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us.” As a result, “new variants emerging out of the poorest countries [are] now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people in the richest countries of the world.”
Misguided hopes of inoculating ourselves while ignoring the less fortunate threatens lives and an economic recovery that was in sight. Jay Powell, chair of the U.S Federal Reserve Bank, warned that a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and the emergence of omicron “pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation.” Laurence Boone, chief economist of the OECD, agreed, noting that omicron is “adding to the already high level of uncertainty and that could be a threat to the recovery, delaying a return to normality or something even worse.”
Developing countries must do more to eliminate vaccine inequities. While booster shots may produce some peace of mind, it makes more sense to see that the world’s poorest citizens get their first doses. Support for the COVAX facility that targets the neediest countries must increase, but that must mean more than words. Many of the pledges made thus far have gone unfulfilled. That is inexplicable when hundreds of millions of doses have been wasted.
Kishida has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and is acting quickly and decisively — or was trying to, until he changed his mind on halting airline reservations to Japan. He would do well to think more broadly and show real leadership by spearheading the effort to vaccinate the world’s poorest citizens. It would be a diplomatic campaign worthy of a former foreign minister and a country that claims to promote national security more broadly. It is hard to imagine a project that could do more to protect the country and the world.
The Japan Times Editorial Board