Covid-19 patient in France

Paramedics, nurses, and doctors use a trolley to transfer a Covid-19 patient from an ambulance into a medical aircraft in Bastia on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica on January 5, 2022. (Photo: Pascal Pochard-Casabianca/AFP via Getty Images)

New Covid Variant in France the Predictable 'Outcome of Vaccine Apartheid': Experts

By letting vaccine apartheid persist, said one expert, "we are playing whack-a-mole with variants—and the virus is winning."

Epidemiologists are expressing little surprise at the emergence of a worrying new Covid-19 variant which has been identified in southern France--emphasizing that new mutations with varying degrees of severity will continue to crop up unless rich nations and Big Pharma end their refusal to lift patent protections and share vaccines with the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday acknowledged that a new variant, currently called variant IHU or B.1.640.2, "has been on our radar" since it was first detected by researchers at Mediterranee Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) in Marseille in November, around the same time the Omicron variant emerged.

"Let us never be surprised when new variants emerge... It will never end unless we vaccinate and protect the whole world."

Abdi Mahamud, the agency's incident manager for Covid-19, told reporters in Geneva that the variant has not been declared a "variant of concern" at this point.

The variant has 46 mutations, including the spike protein mutation that's been identified at N501Y, which scientists say can cause the strain to bind more firmly to human cells and spread in the body more easily, and E484K, which could potentially make it more resistant to vaccines.

According, variant IHU does not appear to be spreading rapidly, especially compared to the Omicron variant that's fueled a major rise in cases around the world--with the U.S. reporting one million cases in a single day Monday and 52 European nations recording nearly five million infections in the past week.

The details of this particular variant, suggested several public health experts, are far less important at this point than the push to ensure the most effective vaccines are widely available in every country in the world--which would prevent new mutations and variants from developing.

Like Omicron, the discovery of variant IHU "is the outcome of vaccine apartheid," tweeted Dr. Madhu Pai, chair of epidemiology and global health at McGill University.

A paper released by scientists last week, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, suggests that the "index case" for variant IHU was a fully vaccinated man who traveled from France to Cameroon and developed "mild respiratory symptoms" after returning.

"The fact that B.1.640.2 has now been detected for the first time in a returnee from Cameroon does not mean that the variant has also emerged in the Central African country," reportedDeutsche Welle on Wednesday. "However, very low vaccination rates generally favor the emergence of new coronavirus mutations. In Cameroon, only 2.4% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the United States."

Africa has the lowest vaccination rate of any continent in the world, with less than 14% of the population inoculated. Nearly three-quarters of all vaccine doses have been administered in high-income countries, while 0.9% have gone into the arms of people in the Global South. That disparity, experts warn, is creating ideal conditions for more mutations that will continue to infect and kill millions of people around the world.

"We are playing whack-a-mole with variants--and the virus is winning," tweeted public health specialist Dr. Ash Paul.

The WHO's announcement that it is investigating variant IHU comes a week after researchers at Texas Children's Hospital, Houston's Baylor College, and the Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E. Limited said they have developed an unpatented new vaccine called Corbevax which is at least 90% against the coronavirus.

The researchers have already shared their vaccine technology with producers in India, Botswana, Indonesia, and Bangladesh--doing what U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna have refused to do as they reap tens of billions of dollars in profits and wealthy countries including the U.K. and Norway refuse to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

Dr. Peter Hotez, who led the Corbevax research team, told Yahoo! Finance on Tuesday that variants like Omicron and variant IHU will continue appearing "unless we make that commitment to vaccinate the world."

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