Could “Vaccine-Resistant” Variants Turn North America and Europe into Gated Communities?

Last Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared that if Pearson airport were under his control he would “shut it down.” Meanwhile, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was talking up Ottawa's plans to create “vaccine passports" so that Canadians can start traveling again.It's a curious conjunction of deepening crisis and rising optimism. It may also be an early sign of a more complicated future in which international travel, like the virus, is mutating.First, the positive news. Vaccinations are steaming toward completion. According to Theresa Tam, the number of new cases should start to decline in May, hence Hajdu's interest in vaccine passports. They would allow citizens from one country to prove to other countries that they are fully vaccinated or have tested negative for the virus. G7 members are apparently already having these discussions. The EU is making strides on a sophisticated system of its own.Doug Ford has a different view of the border question. The potent B1.617 variant arrived in Canada two weeks ago on international flights and is now spreading through Ontario. Although the federal government quickly halted further fights to and from India, the premier sees this as too little, too late. In his view, the virus should never have arrived, and he used his press conference to hammer that point. Open borders, he warned, risk plunging us into yet a fourth wave, fueled by “vaccine-resistant variants.”This should give everyone pause. While Canadian politicians talk openly about how variants can increase transmission, or even make the virus more deadly, they have tiptoed around the subject of vaccine-resistant variants, and it's not hard to see why.In locking down their communities, they have pleaded with citizens to “hang in there” and to “work together” to get to the finish line. Vaccines provide the hope that keeps many communities going. They are not just a promising solution to the pandemic, they are the only solution, and no one wants to contemplate a return to the starting gate.Nevertheless, the premier of Canada's largest province has put that scenario squarely on the table: Shut down the borders, he says, or the pandemic may never end. Is he right? There is a story to tell here, one which sees India as the tip of a massive iceberg.The World Health Organization reports that a small number of wealthier countries – including Canada, the US, and EU members – have bought 90 per cent of the world's vaccine supply, leaving only a fraction for everyone else.As a result, billions of people in poorer countries around the world won't be immunized before 2023 or 2024, at the earliest. In effect, whole regions of the globe are becoming petri dishes where variants can flourish.Last month the People's Vaccine Alliance delivered a chilling message, especially for countries at the front of the vaccination cue. When the PVA surveyed 77 epidemiologists from 28 countries, it found that:
  • Eighty-eight per cent believe that the huge number of unvaccinated people means that vaccine-resistant mutations are likely to appear.
  • Sixty-six per cent expect this to happen within a year; another 18.2 per cent expect it within two years.
In short, if these experts are right, vaccine-resistant variants are coming – possibly within a year or two. If so, the question for vaccinated countries is whether they can modify the existing vaccines fast enough to prevent a resurgence.Unfortunately, we won't know until the variants are here. If the answer is no, our governments will be plunged into crisis as they try to prevent the variants from spreading. Travel restrictions will be imposed to prevent people from countries at risk from entering Canada – and to restrict Canadians from traveling to such places.From this view, vaccine passports look less like a welcome sign that borders are about to re-open, and more like a tool for managing an increasingly tense and bifurcated world – and that is what some leaders fear.UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, for example, is wary of vaccine passports. He worries that they will be used to turn the developed world into a gated community where citizens from the developing world are unwelcome, while citizens from rich countries are permitted to travel.He may be right. But should such variants appear, what is the alternative? We think Ottawa was right to shut the border with India – it had to. And it did so not out of malice, but because experts believe this can help stop the spread. It will do so again, elsewhere, and on a larger scale, if necessary.But let's be clear, this is not a return to the pre-pandemic world Canadians left behind. Nor is it the one many believe is around the corner. It is one where much of the world is under strict quarantine, perhaps indefinitely.We don't know how seriously to take Doug Ford's concerns about vaccine-resistant variants. Perhaps no one does. We certainly hope that he is wrong; or that, if these variants appear, existing vaccines can be quickly adjusted to respond. No one wants to go back to Square One. Nor do we want to turn Canada into a gated community.Nevertheless, there is enough evidence here to command our attention. The Indian crisis could be an early warning sign and governments should take note.As the old saying goes: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.