BusinessDay

COVID-19: Omicron strain spells trouble on Nigeria’s slow vaccine rollout

The rise of Omnicron, a heavily mutated variant of the Covid-19 virus discovered in South Africa on Thursday has spotlighted the precarious position that Nigeria seats, with over 95 percent of its over 200 million unvaccinated.

The grim development is considered a pointer to potential woes ahead of the country’s draggy vaccination course, which could push the fragile health system back on its knees or send the economy back to 2020 levels.

Most infectious disease experts count the emergence of the ‘B.1.1.529’ – a strain with an unusually high capacity to mutate – as a consequence of vaccine inequity in Africa, rampant hesitancy towards uptake and inadequate public leadership to get more jabs in arms.

And since the medium to the high prevalence of the pandemic and low vaccination rates offer perfect conditions for new variants to emerge, they say the world will be on a hamster wheel of mutations until vaccine inequity is addressed.

“Israel also bans travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Eswatini due to the new super variant. This was our greatest fear and were almost prophetic in predicting that the world would eventually shut Africa out, having denied us access to vaccines,” Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, co-chair of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance (AVDA) stated on Twitter.

South Africa had hit 35 percent vaccination coverage of its population and was at a sufficient level of vaccine supply that calls to avoid expiration was growing louder when scientists discovered the new strain.

Nigeria has only administered slightly over 9.6 million doses, with just 6.26 percent of its population covered, data from the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

To date, 213, 883 cases have been confirmed, with 2, 975 deaths recorded in 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Despite having over 21 million doses of vaccine supplies including AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, the country suffers a 54.4 percent (11.5 million) gap in uptake.

This, amid a stock of vaccine supplies that is nowhere near adequate, and an inadequate nationwide capacity for genomic surveillance underscores how ill-equipped the country is to tackle the latest COVID-19 strain if it turns out very violent.

Although analysts don’t expect the economy to be drawn to a lockdown state, they say it’s a major threat that can force other countries to place travel restrictions on Nigeria, which will definitely hurt trade if the variants spread in.

Akinloye Ayorinde, investment research analyst at United Capital said there are genuine concerns over the impact on the international trade of any country that suffers the emergence of a new virus.

Read also: Corp members without COVID-19 vaccine won’t be allowed into camps – NYSC

For South Africa, for instance, trading activities will be impacted severely, especially when the quantum of trade that goes on between the UK and South Africa is considered.

But for Nigeria, “as long as the economy continues to operate and economic activities are allowed to continue normally, even with the presence of the new variant, then it should not have a significant impact on economic recovery. But it is important that measures are put in place to ensure that new variants don’t spread into the country,” Ayorinde said.

Other analysts are raising caution for Nigeria just as the UK, for instance, has decided to intensify its watch on countries with strong travel links to South Africa.

How dangerous?

“There was an unusual constellation of mutations and was very different to other variants that have circulated,” Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa said in a report by the BBC.

He said there were 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the hack the virus uses to invade the human body’s cells.

Conclusions on the rate of infection or severity are yet to be drawn as scientific studies in the laboratory have not come up with results, except that the variant is a present threat.

There have been 77 fully confirmed cases in Gauteng province in South Africa, four cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong (which is directly linked to travel from South Africa).

It’s not clear if it spreads faster than Delta, or to what extent it can evade the immune protection that comes from vaccination.

It is also not clear how well the variant will spread in countries with much higher vaccination rates than the 24 percent of South Africa that is fully vaccinated.

Reactions

Within hours of detection, Britain, Israel and Singapore had restricted travel from South Africa and some neighbouring countries, citing the threat of the new variant. By Friday, markets were down in Japan in response to the discovery, and officials in Australia and in New Zealand said that they were monitoring the new variant closely.

The European Commission will also propose restricting air travel to the bloc from southern Africa based on concerns over the variant, Ursula von der Leyen, the commission’s president, said in a Twitter post on Friday.

A number of variants have emerged since the onset of the pandemic. One underlying concern about them is whether they will stand off the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines.

But governments are not waiting to impose restrictions. By Thursday evening, Britain had banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, starting at noon local time on Friday.

The six nations will be added to the country’s red list, which would require British travellers coming from those nations to quarantine on arrival.

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