A version of this article was published in The Ottawa Citizen under the title, “Deonandan: We need a global ‘Manhattan Project’ to vaccinate the world“.
I’ve given over 2000 media interviews about the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes alongside some prominent and impressive virological experts. We always sing the praises of the COVID vaccines, about how it’s almost a miracle that we have access to so many different highly effective vaccines in a record amount of time. We always argue that vaccination is our best, fastest, and surest path out of this global public health emergency.
But a caveat that we always make sure to include is that one unpredictable event might throw a wrench into the works: the emergence of a COVID variant that seriously compromises the effectiveness of our vaccines.
The latest viral candidate to give scientists sleepless nights is the so-called “Omicron” variant, first observed in South Africa and Botswana, which boasts 32 mutations on the virus’s spike protein. That protein is the “licence plate” by which our antibodies, and by extension the vaccines, identify and neutralize the intruder. If the mutations are sufficiently blurring that licence plate, then maybe those antibodies will fail to recognize and thus fail to neutralize this new threat.
It is believed that this variant, and other variants before it, emerged within the bodies of a small number of immunocompromised people, possibly even a single HIV-infected individual or cancer patient, who suffered a lengthy chronic COVID infection. The bodies of such individuals serve as laboratories for the virus to try out new configurations until a version advantageous to the virus is stumbled upon.
The continued emergence of such variants is the single biggest roadblock on our highway out of this mess. It represents the small but impactful risk of compromising all the hard-won population immunity earned to this point, either through expensive vaccination campaigns or painful infection and recovery.
It therefore behooves us as a civilization to focus the global eye on three goals: (1) flooding the world with COVID vaccines, especially targeted to low income countries where crowding, poor ventilation, and poor access to masks is common; (2) shipping N95 calibre masks around the world to those same places, since COVID is airborne, and simple cloth masks are not sufficient to contain an aerosol-driven respiratory virus; and (3) prioritizing the world’s immunocompromised for all of the above.
Close to 40 million people are thought to be living with HIV/AIDS globally, mostly in low income countries. There are additionally millions of people whose immune systems are compromised by other diseases, disorders, or medical therapies. They must be given the best possible COVID protection –vaccines, antiviral medications, respirator masks– not just for their self-care, but to help protect the world from the acceleration and prolongation of this pandemic.
All of this must happen as soon as possible. For this crisis to end, a wartime mindset must be adopted. A worldwide Manhattan Project is warranted, one in which a significant share of the world’s industrial capacity is focused on vaccine and respirator production and distribution. Anything less threatens to extend the global crisis much longer than it needs to be.