Why Covid-19 Variants Actually Ignore Vaccination Passports and Borders

Caroline de Braganza

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(Image by Rudy & Peter Skitterians from Pixabay)

The reason is, the longer it takes to reach global herd immunity, the more variants will emerge, rendering the vaccine passport useless.

Covid-19 has only one purpose—to infect a host (human) in which it can reproduce new generations to find more humans to multiply and spread.

We can sum up its reason for being in this simple phrase - to thrive and survive.

That’s pretty much what we want to do as humans too.

When we feel threatened, we fight back. When a virus attacks our immune system, we retaliate with T-cells and antibodies.

Covid-19 vaccinations are like a defence missile—diverting and weakening the enemy. But this invisible enemy won’t easily admit defeat—so it changes, mutates.

New variants adapt to their environment because if they don’t, the virus will die.

A vaccine passport doesn’t solve the problem. Getting everyone vaccinated does.

Covid variants are now vying for top spot—the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest. Whichever is the most transmissible will knock out any contenders.

First, we had the UK (United Kingdom) variant B.1.1.7 detected in Kent in October 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed in February it was already in 33 states.

In January, CDC researchers had forecast the UK variant would become the dominant strain in the US by March, and epidemiologist Summer Galloway, the lead author of that report, said Wednesday that it probably accounts for 20% to 30% of the samples being sequenced today. It is spreading rapidly in Europe as well.

In late January, a new variant emerged in California known as the B.1.427/B.1.429. It accounted for 13% of all coronavirus samples genetically sequenced in February as part of a new federal program, is 20% more transmissible than its predecessors, and is the dominant strain in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Similar to the UK strain, it is more resistant to the current array of Covid-19 vaccines. (Pfizer, Moderna, and J & J.)

But scientists believe the UK contender could deliver the knockout blow because it’s reported to be 50% more transmissible than any other variant and now present in 80 countries.

Other variants you may have heard of are:

  • The B.1.351, first identified in South Africa and responsible for 90% of the upsurge in cases in December last year. Now in at least 41 countries.
  • P.1 (first detected in early January 2021 in travelers from Brazil who were tested upon entering Japan.)

Researchers have recently discovered seven variants of the coronavirus in the US, with a mutation in the same genetic letter. It's not yet clear if the strains are more contagious, but researchers expressed concern.

"There's clearly something going on with this mutation," Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport, told The New York Times.

Scientists are worried because the mutations might make it easier for the virus to enter human cells, the Times reported.

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(Source: Our World in Data project)

The rollout of vaccinations doesn't paint an optimistic picture, so why the push for passports?

We could bang on forever about mutations, transmissibility and morbidity, and how we need to keep tweaking the vaccines to cater for emerging variants, but that’s how a virus works.

Healthline explains:

“All viruses contain genetic material in the form of RNA or DNA. Mutations within this genetic material occur at different rates, depending on the type of virus. Mutation rates are typically higher in RNA viruses than they are in DNA viruses.”
“Two RNA viruses with high mutation rates are human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and influenza (flu). SARS-CoV-2 is also an RNA virus, but it generally mutates more slowly.”

Mutations occur when the genetic material is copied to be released from the host cell to infect others. But it may not be an exact replica because the enzyme (polymerase), like a photostat machine, can make a mistake—either to the detriment or benefit of the virus.

Epidemiologists suspect people who contracted earlier versions of Covid-19 can be re-infected by new variants.

So, let’s say, you got your vaccination in the UK and you travel to Cape Town, South Africa, with your vaccine passport.

Which vaccine did you get, how long does immunity last, how effective is it against any new variant that may be circulating in Africa?

I ask because so far, the continent has only received 0.2% of the 300 million coronavirus vaccine doses administered worldwide.

“Despite the precariousness of the situation, Western governments and business lobbies are busy coming up with bad ideas instead of attempting to provide more vaccines to the developing world. The worst of these, now under consideration in both the US and the European Union, is a proposed ‘vaccine passport’ that would allow those who have been vaccinated to travel internationally.”—Extract from article by Daron Acemoglu at Project Syndicate.

The bottom line is until we reach herd immunity across the entire planet, a vaccine passport is useless. It widens the gaps between wealthier and less-developed nations by saying, “I got my vaccine so I can travel wherever the hell I want.”

Not so fast, buddy. You want to come to Cape Town?

Two weeks of quarantine should be mandatory, no matter what vaccine you’ve had or which countries you visited. And the same when you return home. Imagine the UK achieving herd immunity, then one pesky business executive or tourist returns home carrying a new variant and triggers a new pandemic.

Until the virus stops spreading and mutating everywhere, nobody is safe anywhere in the world.

We know governments and airlines are pushing for vaccine passports, but are they ethical?

The most effective tool we have is vaccination.

Let’s support fair international vaccine access mechanisms like COVAX and ACT-A, encourage countries to donate surplus vaccines to COVAX, remove patents on vaccines to increase production in manufacturing facilities that have the capacity, and ensure fair vaccine pricing for all.

We can’t afford to wait much longer. Unless we work together, we will never win this race.

(You can find the latest world vaccinations statistics here)

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