Rich countries were super spreaders of coronavirus- now they must make up for their failure


Two main conclusions emerge. First, Europe was the source of initial infections in the UK. Up until late June 2020, 80% of imported viruses arrived in the month-long period from February 27 to March 30, and these were overwhelmingly from Europe. One-third of them came from Spain, 29% from France, and 12% from Italy – and a mere 0.4% from China.

Second, inbound travel fueled the arrival of many new genetic lineages in the UK, with the rate of these appearances among the infected population peaking in late March 2020. When the UK then finally brought in non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) en masse – causing the country’s score on the OxCGRT Stringency Index to rise from 17 out of 100 to almost 80 in just one week – the diversity of viral isolates began to decline. In other words, the NPIs succeeded in extinguishing many of these lineages in the UK.

These failures cast doubt on G20 countries’ pandemic management more broadly. Had the world’s large, advanced economies stopped new arrivals earlier (especially travelers from Europe), and had they limited internal travel, they would have reduced their own COVID-19 devastation.

Restricting the export of infections would have slowed or perhaps even largely prevented the disease’s spread to poorer countries until vaccines were developed. That, in turn, might have averted costly lockdowns in places that could ill afford them.

G20 governments have focused on preventing the import of the virus, not its export. With hindsight, the virus would have been contained had they required repeat negative tests for anyone getting on a plane or emerging from a quarantine facility.

Having accelerated the spread of COVID-19, richer countries are now prevaricating about getting vaccines to those who need them most. Wealthy countries have stockpiled doses, prioritized vaccinating children who are at relatively very low risk from COVID-19, and are even preparing third “booster shots” for which there is no evidence yet of widespread, near-term need.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is ravaging developing countries, where frontline health workers are dying because they have no access to vaccines. The pandemic has already killed more people globally in 2021 than it did in 2020. Many experts harbor grave concerns about the further spread of the Delta variant, as well as other variants to come, especially in regions where vaccination is progressing slowly.

G20 countries must make up for their COVID-19 failure and commit to vaccinating those at most risk across the world. And as super-connected countries, they must also establish new international standards for pathogen surveillance and travel protocols to ensure that they never super-spread again.

By Ngaire Woods and Anna Petherick for Project Syndicate


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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