Iain Macwhirter: Covid will be defeated in 2022, but only if the world gets its act together

THE height of a third wave of a deadly pandemic might seem an odd time to say how lucky we are. But of course we are incredibly fortunate this Christmas: we have a range of life-saving vaccines delivered in record time. Around 9 billion Covid jabs have now been administered across the world. Even with record numbers catching the Omicron third wave, we can look forward with relative confidence to defeating Covid 19 in 2022. Provided the world avoids vaccine nationalism.

It was very different a century ago. Spanish flu infected nearly half the world’s population and killed around 50 million after its third wave. At least 250,000 died in the UK, the equivalent of half a million today. There was of course no cure, no vaccines and no drugs.

People just died – often in the streets. There was a toxic combination of defeatism and quack remedies – people claiming to have cured themselves by drinking paraffin. Medical staff faced extraordinary risks, comparable to fighting in the front line in the world war that had just ended. Globally, flu killed more than the greatest conflict to that date in history.

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Covid 19 is not flu, but it does appear to be following the same epidemiological script. It has progressed in three waves of which the second was the worst (Delta) and the third seems to be a less deadly long tail. Omicron certainly appears to involve many fewer hospitalisations, according to Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, an epidemiologist not known for his breezy optimism.

A range of new antiviral treatments is now being introduced which should keep many more out of the intensive care wards in 2022. The government is ordering tens of millions of doses of antviral drugs like Pfizer’s Paxlovid. These and others appear to reduce the need for hospitalisation by a third.

But the drugs only work if people take them. Up to a third of Londoners were not vaccinated as the third wave of coronavirus hit the UK. In Scotland by contrast only 8% remained unvaccinated as Omicron began to spike. This is partly to do with overcrowded housing in the metropolis and lack of trust in the NHS, especially amongst BAME Londoners. But it is mainly a result of the astonishing tenacity of false claims that the vaccines are dangerous.

In South Africa, where the Omicron variant was born, fewer than one third of the population are vaccinated. Yet in November the South African government asked Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson to halt shipments of vaccines because they were likely to be wasted, largely due to vaccine hesitancy. At the time it had 16 million shots stockpiled and saw no prospect of their being administered before expiry date.

Social media has been blamed, and Twitter certainly hasn’t helped in combatting misunderstanding and exaggeration. The row in 2020 about herd immunity led some commentators, including the philosopher AC Grayling, to suggest that the UK government was pursuing a “euthanasia” policy of deliberate defeatism – allowing thousand to die in the aid of “saving profits”.

This year, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer have been criticised for making profits out of the production of the vaccines. The jury is out on that. Personally, I have little problem with drug companies making reasonable profits so long as their drugs actually work. Oxford/AstraZeneca got little thanks for producing its vaccines at cost. Without profits pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to research new drugs at vast cost, still less to manufacture them.

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If there is anything this accident-prone Johnson UK government got right it was setting up the Vaccine Task Force and using government money to finance the manufacture of vaccines, and build the supply chain, even before it was known if they would work. Thereafter the National Health Service did a world-beating job of getting the vaccines into our arms.

But one of the truisms of 2021 was that he pandemic will not be eradicated anywhere until it is eradicated everywhere. There has been much justified hand-wringing about the failure to get vaccines to people in less developed countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Gordon Brown has been acting as the conscience of the West, chastising Europe and America for reportedly stockpiling twice the number of vaccines they will likely need.

The UK government has delivered less than half of the 100 million doses it promised for the WHO’s Covax scheme by the end of 2021. Even slower has been the administering of the vaccines when they get there. Many countries lack the health service infrastructure to ensure coverage – even in India which is a major manufacturer of vaccines.

It was inevitable that the countries which developed the vaccines would use them first, led by the UK. Developed countries like Germany also have a disproportionate number of older people who are particularly vulnerable to death from Covid. Then, when Omicron came along, many countries with vaccines opted to use them as boosters. But imagine the row if there had been a shortage because the government had sent them overseas?

Vaccine nationalism will have to be banished in 2022 if only to halt the spread of new variants. Gordon Brown has called for a Pandemic Non Proliferation Treaty to boost supplies of vaccines to the Global South. It will also have to address the lingering resistance in the countries with the most to gain from vaccination. Countries that fared so well in the early waves, like New Zealand, will have to find some way to protect their populations that doesn’t involve permanent lockdown.

There is much we still don’t know about the origins of Covid-19, only that it is highly infectious to humans. Yet no one has yet identified any animal species from which it leapt to humans – the “direct progenitor”. Until one is found, the theory that it escaped accidentally from a lab in Wuhan, China will continue to gain ground. That could turn the pandemic into a geo-political confrontation, just in time for the next wave in the winter of 2022.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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