Eleven variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) so far. Four them, namely, Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, are “variants of concern”. The other seven, namely, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda, are “variants of interest”.
Delta, the “most transmissible” of them all, “has been identified in at least 85 countries, and is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations.” That was the key warning in WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ June 25, 2021, media briefing.
First detected in India in late 2020, the Delta coronavirus variant is formerly known as B.1.617.2. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially labeled Delta a “variant of concern” in mid-April. The CDC describes a variant of concern as “a variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.”
According to Public Health England (PHE), the Delta variant is 60% more transmissible than Alpha, the variant formerly known as B.1.1.7. The PHE’s June 11 weekly update stated that “over 90% of new COVID-19 cases in the UK are now the Delta variant, which continues to show a significantly higher rate of growth compared to the Alpha variant.” The Alpha variant was first identified in the UK early this year.
Below is the part of WHO Director General Ghebreyesus’ media address that’s relevant to this blog post:
I know that globally there is currently a lot of concern about the Delta variant, and WHO is concerned about it too.
Delta is the most transmissible of the variants identified so far, has been identified in at least 85 countries, and is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations.
As some countries ease public health and social measures, we are starting to see increases in transmission around the world.
More cases means more hospitalizations, further stretching health workers and health systems, which increases the risk of death.
As we have said, new variants are expected and will continue to be reported – that’s what viruses do, they evolve – but we can prevent the emergence of variants by preventing transmission.
It’s quite simple: more transmission, more variants. Less transmission, less variants.
That makes it even more urgent that we use all the tools at our disposal to prevent transmission: the tailored and consistent use of public health and social measures, in combination with equitable vaccination.
This is why WHO has been saying for at least a year that vaccines must be distributed equitably, to protect health workers and the most vulnerable.
The New York Times‘ COVID-19 “vaccinations tracker” uses data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford in the UK and other reputable global entities. As of June 26, 2021, it reported:
More than 2.88 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 38 doses for every 100 people. There is already a stark gap between vaccination programs in different countries, with some yet to report a single dose… There is also a striking divide between continents. Africa has the slowest vaccination rate of any continent, with some countries yet to start mass vaccination campaigns…
Less wealthy countries are relying on a vaccine-sharing arrangement called Covax, which aims to provide two billion doses by the end of the year. 85 percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.
In his June 18th media briefing, WHO Director General Ghebreyesus stated that “less than 1%” of Africa’s current population of 1.37 billion people has so far been vaccinated. One of the WHO’s “global targets” is to vaccinate “at least 40%” of the populations of Africa’s 54 countries, which have overwhelming Black and BIPOC majorities, “by the end of the year, and 70% by the middle of next year.”
The global failure to share vaccines equitably is fueling a two-track pandemic that is now taking its toll on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Every region has countries that are now facing a steep increase in cases and deaths. Many countries in Latin America have rapidly increasing epidemics, and others have plateaued at a high level.
In Africa, cases have increased by 52% just in the past week, and deaths have increased by 32%. And we expect things to only get worse. Less than 1% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated.
The WHO chief’s address also highlighted the other variant of the global COVID-19 pandemic: vaccine apartheid.
According to Jonathan Shaffer, a co-founder of Right to Health Action and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Boston University, “vaccine apartheid is an apt description of the injustice built into the current and persistent inequalities in vaccine access. The map of current Covid-19 vaccine access overlays neatly onto much older maps of colonial conquest.”
The New York Times‘ COVID-19 vaccinations tracker describes a “vaccinated person” as “someone who has received at least one dose of a vaccine,” and a “fully vaccinated person” as someone who “has received all required doses of a vaccine.”
As of June 26, 2021, the tracker showed that 68% and 25% of Canada’s citizens and residents had been “vaccinated” and “fully vaccinated”, respectively. Canada had administered a total of 34,694,975 doses or 92 per 100 people.
By comparison, an overwhelming majority of Black African- and BIPOC-majority countries and communities of Africa, South East Asia, The Caribbean, Latin America and parts of the Global South, from whose half-guarded economies Canada extracts tens of millions of dollars every year through largely unaccountable extractive businesses, remained in what UN human rights experts recently called a situation where “they see vaccines as a mirage or a privilege for the developed world”.
The New York Times‘ COVID-19 “vaccinations tracker” confirmed that, as of June 26, 2021:
- South Africa had “vaccinated” only 4.5% and “fully vaccinated” only 0.8% of its population. The Black-dominated sub-Saharan African country had administered only 2,661,378 COVID-19 vaccine doses or 4.5 per 100 people.
- Zambia had “vaccinated” only 0.8% and “fully vaccinated” less than 1% of its population. The Black-majority African country had administered only 149,002 COVID-19 doses or 0.8 per 100 people.
- Bangladesh had “vaccinated” only 3.6% and “fully vaccinated” only 2.6% of its population. The South East Asian country had administered 10,095,479 COVID-19 doses or 6.2 per 100 people.
- Guatemala had “vaccinated” only 4.5% and “fully vaccinated” only 0.9% of its population. The Latin American country had administered only 900,370 COVID-19 vaccine doses or 5.4 per 100 people.
- Nicaragua had “vaccinated” only 2.6% of its population. The Latin American country had administered only 167,500 COVID-19 doses or 2.6 per 100.
During the recent G7 summit in the United Kingdom, the leaders of the world’s largest economies loudly stated that their “immediate focus is beating COVID-19 and we set a collective goal of ending the pandemic in 2022,” according to the summit’s final communique (PDF). The white saviour industrial complex-informed communique promised to “end the pandemic and prepare for the future by driving an intensified international effort, starting immediately, to vaccinate the world by getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible as fast as possible”. The document stated:
Recognising the urgent need to speed up delivery of doses, we are committing to share at least 870 million doses directly over the next year.
In an opinion published in The Conversation earlier this week, Michael Jennings, Reader in International Development, SOAS, University of London, posited that the G7’s pledged 870 million doses “will only allow for 500 million people to be vaccinated, half of those in 2021 and the rest next year… By any standard, the G7’s announcement represents a massive failure of ambition and leadership. There is a clear gap between rhetoric and reality.
As per WHO Director General Ghebreyesus’ June 18 media briefing:
Vaccines donated next year will be far too late for those who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today. Our global targets are to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of the year, and 70% by the middle of next year.
Meanwhile, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke out against the injustice of COVID-19 pandemic vaccine apartheid. According to Brown:
Immunising the west but only a fraction of the developing world is already fueling allegations of ‘vaccine apartheid’ and will leave Covid-19 spreading, mutating and threatening the lives and livelihoods of us all for years to come.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regularly-updated “SARS-CoV-2 Variant Classifications and Definitions” web page has all the information you’d ever need to deepen your understanding of coronavirus “variants of concern”, “variants of interest”, “variants of high consequence”, SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.
The official website of the WHO has a page dedicated to “tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants“.
The UK government’s “Confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants identified in UK” web portal, maintained by Public Health England, provides the “latest updates on SARS-CoV-2 variants detected in UK”.