South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine shot at the Khayelitsha Hospital in Cape Town on February 17, 2021. Photo: AFP / Gianluigi Guercia

The discovery of a potentially more transmissible variant of Covid-19 in South Africa last week underlines the need for global cooperation in the fight against the pandemic.

Scientists are still scrambling to determine the exact nature of the danger posed by the Omicron variant, but that hasn’t stopped much of the world from isolating Southern Africa through border closures and airline bans. These efforts amount to using a Band-Aid to stop a hemorrhage.

As long as access to vaccines is lopsided and large areas of the world don’t receive the adequate assistance needed to combat the spread of Covid-19, new variants and mutations will continue to plague the international community.

Instead of isolating Southern African nations, the rest of the world should use the emergence of the Omicron variant as a catalyst to find new and constructive ways of working together in this prolonged battle against Covid-19. 

It’s no coincidence that the latest variant emerged in South Africa. With millions of immunocompromised people suffering from other viruses such as HIV, South Africa is a perfect petri dish for the emergence of new variants.

But this is nothing new. What’s remarkable is the speed at which South African scientists could identify the new variant, alert the international community, and begin working on sequencing the mutation. Thanks to South Africa’s swift surveillance of Covid-19 and the established scientific sector, the international community is in a much better position than during the early days of the last significant mutation with the Delta variant.

Within hours of the announcement, the United Kingdom placed a travel ban on South Africa and other regions. South Africa is entering the height of its tourism season, driven heavily by British and European tourists.

The travel ban was viewed with scorn and felt like a punishment for many South Africans. Even The New York Times noted that South Africa “put its sophisticated disease surveillance and research systems to good use, and quickly shared the results with the world, only to have its transparency repaid with damaging travel bans.”

Part of the dismay over the travel bans stems from the fact that Western nations haven’t done enough to protect the rest of the world against Covid-19. Vaccine manufacturers have resisted calls to open up production in emerging-market countries like South Africa to speed up vaccination rates. Less than 7% of the African continent is vaccinated.

On Sunday evening, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the issue of vaccine inequality head-on.

“We have said that vaccine inequality not only costs lives and livelihoods in those countries that are denied access but that it also threatens global efforts to overcome the pandemic,” he said. “The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will be at risk.”

To be clear, this isn’t a new issue. Since vaccines hit the market, there have been repeated calls to open up manufacturing worldwide to improve access. But vaccine manufacturers and their supporters have resisted.

In April, Bill Gates underscored his opposition to expanding the manufacturing of vaccines to developing nations because he felt that most countries didn’t have the technical capacity needed for the specialized vaccines.

The primary issue appears to be financial, as the technology transfer required to establish operations in countries like South Africa would cut into profits. This is slowly changing as companies such as Pfizer have announced limited manufacturing partnerships around the world.

But there is a long way to go. In one example this year, vaccines produced in South Africa by Johnson & Johnson were being exported to European nations as reserves.

Slowing down the appearance of new variants and getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t technically complicated, since we know what steps need to be taken. Vaccination efforts in developing markets need to be ramped up significantly, and the best way to help this effort is to expand vaccine manufacturing to more countries.

If Western countries and pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to take these steps, new variants will continue to leap on to the international scene and jeopardize global efforts to contain the virus.

With its quick discovery of the Omicron variant, South Africa has proved to be a vital partner in combating the pandemic. Instead of prematurely isolating the country, the international community should use this event to engage South Africa more fully and establish a new base of vaccine manufacturing for Africa in the country.

No country or group of countries can fight this pandemic by itself, and no number of travel bans will ultimately prevent the virus from moving around the world.

More than ever, we need to embrace the spirit of cooperation to ensure that we can put the pandemic behind us. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in Abu Dhabi exploring change in emerging markets.