Omicron variant

Postponement of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference, continued efforts to increase vaccinations

With the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant in Africa last week, a designation by the World Health Organization that the new variant (“Omicron”) was a “variant of concern”, surging infections in Europe, and reintroduced travel restrictions and quarantine requirements for visitors from certain countries, it was not surprising that the WTO Members decided to postpone the 12th Ministerial Conference which had been set to start on November 30 in Geneva. See World Health Organization, Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern, 26 November 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/26-11-2021-classification-of-omicron-(b.1.1.529)-sars-cov-2-variant-of-concern; WTO News Release, General Council decides to postpone MC12 indefinitely, 26 November 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/mc12_26nov21_e.htm.

The spate of new travel restrictions ranged from restrictions on countries in southern Africa where early cases had been identified or where transborder movement was likely, to blanket blockage of entry of foreign travelers from any country (e.g., Israel, Japan and Morocco). Countries from Australia to Canada to various countries in Europe including the United Kingdom as well as Israel, Hong Kong and some countries in Africa have confirmed cases of the new Omicron variant. See, e.g., New York Times, Tracking Omicron and Other Coronavirus Variants, updated November 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/health/coronavirus-variant-tracker.html (” So far it has been detected in South Africa and Botswana, as well as in travelers to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Hong Kong.”). Government official in South Africa called the restriction unwarranted. See, e.g., BBC, Covid: US joins EU in restricting flights from southern Africa over new coronavirus variant, 27 November 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-59427770 (“South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla told reporters that the flight bans against the country were ‘unjustified’.”). Many pointed to the continued inequitable access of vaccines in Africa as the cause of the development of a new variant. See, e.g., The Guardian, Larry Elliott, The Omicron variant reveals the true global danger of ‘vaccine apartheid’, 28 November 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/nov/28/the-omicron-variant-reveals-the-true-global-danger-of-vaccine-apartheid.

The WHO on November 29, 2021 is reported to have indicated that the Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk. See, e.g., New York Times, The W.H.O. says Omicron poses a ‘very high’ risk globally as questions about the variant remain. November 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/11/29/world/omicron-variant-covid#the-who-says-omicron-poses-a-very-high-risk-globally (“The World Health Organization warned on Monday that global risks posed by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus were ‘very high,’ as countries around the world rushed to defend against its spread with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.”). One can expect continued international efforts to limit the spread of the Omicron variant until greater information is known on the variant and whether it reduces the effectiveness of existing vaccines.

With the postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference, there will likely be a slowdown in fact in negotiations by WTO Members on topics such as the fisheries subsidies agreement, an outcome on trade and health including any resolution of the proposed waiver of TRIPS obligations to address the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing agriculture negotiations, various Joint Statement Initiatives (a number of which appear completed already), actions on climate change, an agenda for discussing WTO reform, etc. While the Director-General and the Chair of the General Council have urged continued work and WTO Members have indicated a desire to continue to work to reduce differences, it is hard to imagine that any existing momentum doesn’t get lost at least until Members are approaching the date of the rescheduled Ministerial (which has not yet been announced). See, e.g., WTO News Release, General Council decides to postpone MC12 indefinitely, 26 November 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/mc12_26nov21_e.htm (“WTO members were unanimous in their support of the recommendations from the Director-General and the General Council Chair, and they pledged to continue working to narrow their differences on key topics like the WTO’s response to the pandemic and the negotiations to draft rules slashing harmful fisheries subsidies. The Director-General and Amb. Castillo urged delegations to maintain the negotiating momentum that had been established in recent weeks. ‘This does not mean that negotiations should stop. On the contrary, delegations in Geneva should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with,’ the DG said.”).

Much government attention will return to expanding production and distribution of vaccines to countries with low vaccination rates while governments and the WHO seek answers to the questions surrounding the Omicron variant — is it more easily transmissible? Is it more severe in its consequences to those who become infected? How effective are existing vaccines in protecting people from the new variant? And many developed countries will continue to push booster shots to those who are already vaccinated in light of the declining efficacy after six months for the main vaccines used in Europe and the U.S.

In prior posts, I have reviewed some of the challenges in understanding vaccine equity in light of different levels of vaccination in countries of similar economic development. See, e.g., November 23, 2021:  WTO-IMF COVID-19 Vaccine Trade Tracker provides useful information in analyzing vaccine equity, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/23/wto-imf-covid-19-vaccine-trade-tracker-provides-useful-information-in-analyzing-vaccine-equity/; November 22, 2021:  Trade and Health at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/22/trade-and-health-at-the-wtos-12th-ministerial-conference/. Many actions have been taken which are increasing the volume of vaccines available around the world, including adding capacity for at least fill and finish in Africa and other parts of the world. Greater efforts at donations and filling contracts with COVAX are happening and will increase in 2022.

Interestingly, on November 29, 2021, there was a joint statement from the African Union, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, CEPI, GAVI, UNICEF and the WHO on one aspect of getting vaccines to low income countries and others — donations from other countries. See Joint Statement on Dose Donations of COVID-19 Vaccines to African Countries, 29 November 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/29-11-2021-joint-statement-on-dose-donations-of-covid-19-vaccines-to-african-countries. While donations to date have been a small part of total vaccine doses available throughout the world, there are a series of challenges to ensuring donations provide the maximum benefit going forward. See UNICEF, COVID-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard, visited November 29, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/supply/covid-19-vaccine-market-dashboard (8.856 billion total doses delivered to countries and territories around the world, including 4.535 billion through bilateral/multilateral agreements; 163.3 million from donations; 560.1 million through COVAX and 3.574 billion unknown (but appearl largely from internal production for particular countries). The UNICEF data also looks at donations more granularly and the data are significantly larger than the summary data above (701.8 million donated doses of which 381.3 million are facilitated doses and 470.5 million are delivered doses).

The Joint Statement is copied below because of the importance of donated doses for low income countries in 2022.

“Building on lessons learned from our collective experience with dose donations over the past several months, the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and COVAX wish to draw the attention of the international community to the situation of donations of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa, and other COVAX participating economies, particularly those supported by the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC).

“AVAT and COVAX complement each other’s efforts to support African countries to meet their immunisation targets, recognising the global goal of immunising 70% of the African population. Dose donations have been an important source of supply while other sources are stepping up, but the quality of donations needs to improve.

“AVAT and COVAX are focused on accelerating access to and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Africa. Together we are rapidly expanding supply to the continent, and providing countries with the support to be able to utilise the doses they receive. To date, over 90 million donated doses have been delivered to the continent via COVAX and AVAT and millions more via bilateral arrangements.

“However, the majority of the donations to-date have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives. This has made it extremely challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorptive capacity. To achieve higher coverage rates across the continent, and for donations to be a sustainable source of supply that can complement supply from AVAT and COVAX purchase agreements, this trend must change.

“Countries need predictable and reliable supply. Having to plan at short notice and ensure uptake of doses with short shelf lives exponentially magnifies the logistical burden on health systems that are already stretched. Furthermore, ad hoc supply of this kind utilises capacity – human resources, infrastructure, cold chain – that could be directed towards long-term successful and sustainable rollout. It also dramatically increases the risks of expiry once doses with already short shelf-lives arrive in country, which may have long-term repercussions for vaccine confidence.

“Donations to COVAX, AVAT, and African countries must be made in a way that allows countries to effectively mobilise domestic resources in support of rollout and enables long-term planning to increase coverage rates. We call on the international community, particularly donors and manufacturers, to commit to this effort by adhering to the following standards, beginning from 1 January 2022:

Quantity and predictability: Donor countries should endeavour to release donated doses in large volumes and in a predictable manner, to reduce transaction costs. We acknowledge and welcome the progress being made in this area, but note that the frequency of exceptions to this approach places increased burden on countries, AVAT and COVAX.

Earmarking: These doses should be unearmarked for greatest effectiveness and to support long-term planning. Earmarking makes it far more difficult to allocate supply based on equity, and to account for specific countries’ absorptive capacity. It also increases the risk that short shelf-life donations utilise countries’ cold chain capacity – capacity that is then unavailable when AVAT or COVAX are allocating doses with longer shelf lives under their own purchase agreements.

Shelf life: As a default, donated doses should have a minimum of 10 weeks shelf life when they arrive in-country, with limited exceptions only where recipient countries indicate willingness and ability to absorb doses with shorter shelf lives.

Early notice: Recipient countries need to be made aware of the availability of donated doses not less than 4 weeks before their tentative arrival in-country.

Response times: All stakeholders should seek to provide rapid response on essential information. This includes essential supply information from manufacturers (total volumes available for donation, shelf life, manufacturing site), confirmation of donation offer from donors, and acceptance/refusal of allocations from countries. Last minute information can further complicate processes, increasing transaction costs, reducing available shelf life and increasing risk of expiry.

Ancillaries: The majority of donations to-date do not include the necessary vaccination supplies such as syringes and diluent, nor do they cover freight costs –  meaning these have to be sourced separately – leading to additional costs, complexity and delay. Donated doses should be accompanied with all essential ancillaries to ensure rapid allocation and absorption.

“AVAT, Africa CDC and COVAX remain committed to collaborate with donor countries, vaccine manufacturers and partners on ensuring these standards are upheld, as we continue to work together towards achieving Africa’s vaccination goals.”

The challenge of improving global vaccination rates is complicated. Supply is certainly a major issue. But countries who receive vaccines may also have problems ramping up administration of doses to their populations. While Africa has many low income countries (as classified by the World Bank), it also has countries at higher levels of income. For example, South Africa is an upper-middle income country according to the World Bank criteria but has a very low vaccination rate for an upper-middle income country. A recent New York Times article reviews that there have been significant increases in supplies to South Africa recently such that it has five months of doses on hand but is having trouble getting shots to people in need quickly enough. See New York Times, South Africa, where Omicron was detected, is an outlier on the least vaccinated continent. November 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/11/28/world/covid-omicron-variant-news (“South Africa has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent: Just under one-quarter of the population has been fully vaccinated, and the government said it has over five months’ worth of doses in its stores. But they are not being administered fast enough. Vaccinations in South Africa are running at about half the target rate, officials said last week. To prevent vaccines from expiring, the government has even deferred some deliveries scheduled for early next year.”).

Thus, as the world reacts to the discovery of a new variant and struggles to understand its implications, the WTO will struggle ahead in the hope of narrowing differences ahead of a further delayed Ministerial Conference, and the world will continue to pursue improved vaccine equity while dealing with increased uncertainty flowing from the Omicron variant.

The answer to the issue of vaccine equity is complex and, at least for the COVID-19 pandemic, not really dependent on a temporary waiver of TRIPs obligations for vaccines which would have no meaningful effect on supply availability through at least 2022. Production has been ramped up in many countries. The volumes available in 2022 should permit meeting the global objective of getting 70% of the world’s people vaccinated by next fall. But challenges remain in terms of internal capacities in many poorer countries to get their populations vaccinated, as well as misinformation on vaccines, the large level of vaccine hesitancy in developed countries and in developing countries, and the rise of new variants and what effect on existing vaccines they will have. Cooperation is needed in addressing all aspects of the issue. Time will tell whether improved cooperation is likely as we close out 2021 and start 2022.