The biggest surge-testing operation yet is under way in south London, with all people over the age of 10 who live, work or travel through Wandsworth and Lambeth being urged to take a Covid PCR test on top of twice-weekly rapid testing. The measures are prompted by a cluster of cases of the variant first detected in South Africa, against which several vaccines have shown reduced efficacy. They cast a shadow over the UK’s successful inoculation campaign.
The urgency is sensible. But it stands in striking contrast to the fact that the variant is being allowed to circulate largely unhindered in South Africa itself, and more broadly on the African continent, thanks to low levels of immunisation. Only about 300,000 of the country’s one million health workers have been protected. While the government too has responsibility for the slow pace, it is hard to argue with the warning of the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, that we are watching “vaccine apartheid”. The 700m doses delivered worldwide have overwhelmingly gone to the rich. Low-income countries have received just 0.2% of them.
This helps to explain the exponential growth of coronavirus that we are witnessing more than a year into the pandemic. Cases have been rising for seven straight weeks. India alone recorded 168,000 new cases on Monday. The resurgence has prompted it to halt exports from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer of Covid vaccines, to the dismay of waiting governments in Africa.
Overall, Africa has so far fared much better than anticipated. Many governments were swift to close borders and impose restrictions as coronavirus emerged, compared to the complacency seen in Europe. Its relative youth may help to explain low death tolls; so too, almost certainly, does under-recording. But the World Health Organization has warned that a third wave of the virus could overrun struggling healthcare systems. Millions of doctors, nurses and others in sub-Saharan Africa are risking their lives, yet will wait months or even years for protection. Though the vaccine pooling scheme Covax has begun delivering doses, it cannot acquire enough. Pharmaceutical firms should be pressed to follow AstraZeneca in providing vaccines at cost price. But the main issue is supply. Covax has already begun crucial work to help scale up manufacturing, but the complexities of production mean that may not pay off before next year.
Wealthy countries promise to hand over spare doses, but will not say when. They are hoarding supplies to cover their entire populations, provide boosters, and have alternatives on hand in case of vaccine resistance. They should make a real commitment, instead of risking a worst-case scenario in which doses are squandered: stockpiled but unused until they prove redundant.
The more the virus circulates, the greater its opportunities to mutate, increasing the risk to us all. The pandemic can only be brought under control by suitable public health measures – such as tracing, mask wearing and social distancing – and a more equitable distribution of vaccines. It is wise to keep a watch on new variants at home, but of limited use while the virus circulates unchecked elsewhere.