Scientists warn new COVID mutations in a year as vaccines stall

Leading researchers say humans have a year or less before the coronavirus mutates and first-generation vaccines are ‘rendered ineffective’.

Vaccine-resistant mutations are likely because of extremely 'low vaccine coverage' in many countries, mostly developing ones [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Leading health experts from around the world warned the slow roll-out of vaccines and unequal distribution could mean the shots become ineffective as new coronavirus mutations appear within the next year.

Seventy-seven scientists – from leading academic institutions from around the globe – participated in the survey with about 30 percent suggesting second-generation vaccines will be needed as soon as in nine months, unless vaccines become more widely produced and distributed around the world.

Nearly 90 percent of the researchers said more vaccine-resistant mutations are likely because of extremely “low vaccine coverage” in many countries, mostly developing ones.

At the current rate, it is likely that only 10 percent of people in the majority of poor countries will be vaccinated in the next year, according to The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 organisations.

The alliance called for the lifting of pharmaceutical monopolies and the sharing of technology to urgently boost vaccine supplies.

“The more the virus circulates, the more likely it is that mutations and variants will emerge, which could make our current vaccines ineffective. At the same time, poor countries are being left behind without vaccines and basic medical supplies like oxygen,” said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

“As we’ve learned, viruses don’t care about borders. We have to vaccinate as many people as possible, everywhere in the world, as quickly as possible. Why wait and watch instead of getting ahead of this?”

‘Must take control’

According to the survey, 66 percent of the researchers said human beings have a year or less before the virus mutates and the majority of first-generation vaccines are “rendered ineffective”. Eighteen percent said we have six months or less, and 33 percent predicted about nine months.

The alliance called on all pharmaceutical corporations working on COVID-19 vaccines to openly share their technology and intellectual property through the World Health Organization COVID-19 Technology Access Pool to speed up production and distribution of the jabs around the world.

“If we were in a war with a country called COVID, would governments leave vital decisions on production, supply and price in the hands of arms-producing companies?” said Dr Mohga Kamal Yanni, senior health policy advisor to The People Vaccine Alliance.

“Given vaccines are our most crucial weapon in the fight against COVID-19, world leaders must take control.”

Meanwhile, world leaders pushed for a new international treaty to prepare for the next global pandemic – and avoid the unseemly scramble for vaccines hampering the COVID-19 response.

Leaders from 25 countries, the European Union, and the World Health Organization (WHO) sought to get the ground rules down in writing to streamline and speed up the reaction to future global outbreaks.

The treaty would aim to ensure that information, virus pathogens, technology to tackle the pandemic and products such as vaccines are shared swiftly and equitably among nations.

“The time to act is now. The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference.

Without an internationally coordinated pandemic response plan “we remain vulnerable”, he warned.

Healthcare workers take a patient suspected of having COVID-19 from an ambulance in Brasilia, Brazil [File: Eraldo Peres/AFP]

Vaccine commitment

Leaders from five continents, meanwhile, called for future pandemic preparedness in a joint article published in international newspapers on Tuesday.

The signatories included Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Chile’s Sebastian Pinera.

“We must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion,” said the article.

“We are, therefore, committed to ensuring universal and equitable access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for this and future pandemics.”

Leaders from key world powers including the United States, China, Russia and Japan are not among the signatories so far.

But Tedros said Washington and Beijing were positively responding to the call and insisted it was not a problem they had not yet signed up.

Tedros said he hoped to have a resolution in time for the World Health Assembly in May.

The push to bolster common efforts comes as the planet struggles to combine forces to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed almost 2.8 million people worldwide and battered the global economy.

The spread of the coronavirus has seen blame traded between capitals and accusations that rich nations have hoarded vaccines.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies