The development of the new variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, can be attributed to our failure to open-source our vaccines and freely transfer technology, contrary to claims from the pharmaceutical industry and its political allies. Their big talking point is that South Africa currently has more vaccines than it can effectively use at the moment.
This claim ignores two important points. The first is that we really don’t know where this strain originated. It was first identified in South Africa in part because its screening system happened to catch it. South Africa then did the responsible thing and reported to the world that it had uncovered a new variant.
This doesn’t mean that the Omicron variant originated in South Africa. It has been identified in samples taken in the Netherlands several days before its discovery in South Africa. The variant was also identified in a sample in Nigeria that was taken in October. Since we are not sure where it originated at this point, it’s not clear that South Africa’s current ability to deliver vaccines has much relevance to the development of the omicron variant.
But a second point is even more important. The development of variants depends on the extent of the spread of the virus. The more people who get COVID-19, the more opportunity the virus has to mutate.
Suppose we had a genuine worldwide effort to contain the pandemic from when it was first recognized in February of 2020. Ideally, we would have seen international collaboration involving the sharing of technology and resources. This would have meant creating a world in which anyone with the production capacity, or the ability to develop the production capacity, could manufacture mRNA vaccines. It also would have meant coordinating the production and distribution of the less effective Chinese vaccines, as well as vaccines from Russia and India, until we could produce a sufficient number of mRNA vaccines.
If we had really engaged in an all out effort to get the world vaccinated, it is likely the vast majority of the world’s population could have been vaccinated by the summer. (China had produced close to 2 billion of its vaccines by the end of July.) This would have hugely slowed the spread of the pandemic and drastically reduced the likelihood of mutations.
Of course, we can never say for certain whether a specific variant would have developed in a world with much less spread, just as we can never say whether a particular hurricane is attributable to global warming. But we know that without global warming we would see fewer hurricanes and with less spread we would see fewer mutations.
So yes, blame government-granted patent monopolies. Maybe one day we can have a serious discussion of better mechanisms for financing the development of new drugs and vaccines. In the meantime, we need to double down on our efforts to get the world vaccinated as quickly as possible.
An earlier version said that South Africa had a very good screening system for detecting variants. While it does have the best system in Africa, it screens a far smaller portion of its tests that most wealthy countries.