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Vaccine inequality to blame for omicron, says Rockefeller Foundation


Rajiv Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation

Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The failure of the wealthiest nations to share Covid-19 vaccines quickly and widely with developing countries is a key reason for the emergence of the new omicron variant, according to Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

South African scientists reported their discovery of the highly mutated variant late last week, though cases have now been identified around the world. Dutch authorities say the variant was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the World Health Organization about it.

Omicron’s plethora of mutations led to the WHO designating it a “variant of concern” and “very high risk,” though much remains to be learned in the coming weeks about the severity of symptoms and the variant’s ability to evade vaccines and treatments.

Speaking to CNBC at the Conference de Paris on Tuesday, Shah said the pandemic has highlighted the “tremendous ingenuity and innovation” in the private sector that can be used in public policy. Operation Warp Speed in the U.S. is a “huge success story,” he added.

However, he suggested that the developed world had failed in its two objectives to ensure that such success could be emulated globally.

“One was to achieve 40% immunization coverage by the end of this year, and the other was to achieve 70% and therefore herd immunity by September of next year. Neither of those is going to be achieved through current efforts,” Shah said.

“And that’s exactly why we have this dangerous new variant, disrupting global markets and global economies and lives around the world.”

‘In everybody’s national interest’

He added that the Rockefeller Foundation’s experts have estimated that new variants are six to eight times more likely to come from less developed countries, because slow immunization means viral replication continues to occur at a high rate.

Several African leaders, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, have accused rich Western nations of hoarding vaccines. Ramaphosa said in a speech over the weekend that the emergence of the omicron variant should be a “wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue.”

“Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay,” Ramaphosa said.

A number of countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., moved to restrict travel from South Africa and neighboring countries following the initial report to the WHO — a move characterized by Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera on Sunday as fueled by “Afrophobia” rather than science.

“I frankly wish the companies that are involved here — Pfizer, Moderna, and others — would do more to make their products available either through partnership with local manufacturers, or through true tiered pricing arrangements that could allow developing countries to access those products on the right terms much faster,” Shah told CNBC’s Charlotte Reed on Tuesday.

“It’s in everybody’s national interest to serve other countries right now.”



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