From Delta to Omicron: 2021 in review

From Delta to Omicron, SciDev.Net looks back over a year of breakthroughs, shortfalls and shifting attitudes.

Concerns over vaccine equity and the highly transmissible Delta variant kept COVID-19 firmly at the top of the world news agenda in 2021.

World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus revealed in January that just 25 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in one of the world’s poorest countries, warning of “a catastrophic moral failure”.

In perhaps one the gloomiest assessments of the pandemic response to date, Ghebreyesus cast doubt over whether the WHO-backed COVAX facility — created to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines — would secure the doses it needed as high-income countries forged their own deals with vaccine manufacturers.

An investigation by SciDev.Net in February laid bare this global vaccine gap — and hollow promises by governments to address it — as health specialists warned that the shortage of vaccines in developing countries could threaten progress against COVID-19 in the global North.

In India, a new variant of the virus was taking hold which would push health systems to breaking point. The country reported more than 4 million new cases and over 25,000 deaths in April as what would later be named the Delta variant gripped.

By July, Delta had become the dominant strain worldwide and was sweeping across Africa, causing a third wave of infections. Case numbers and deaths surged.


As the COVAX facility failed to deliver the required doses to respond to the worsening global crisis, low- and middle-income countries began to turn to home-grown vaccinations, SciDev.Net later revealed.

COVID-19 was colouring every aspect of science and development. In July, a multi-agency UN report found that global food insecurity increased more in 2020 than in the previous five years put together, with much of the rise in hunger likely linked to the pandemic.

In September, the UN Food Systems Summit urged the world to urgently review its food production and consumption patterns, to tackle rising hunger and malnutrition and save the planet.

However, the summit was mired in controversy, with a large number of civil society groups and scientists boycotting the event. Organisers rejected their claims that representation was skewed in favour of big agribusinesses at the expense of small-scale producers and indigenous peoples.

An online panel hosted by SciDev.Net and its parent organisation CABI later in the year would hear a “perfect storm” for global food collapse was brewing around the world. SciDev.Net looked at how innovations and new science can help avert this in its Spotlight, Feeding the Future.

Groundbreaking advances

It was against this bleak outlook that the world welcomed some better news in October when the WHO approved extensive use of the first malaria vaccine among children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientists are meanwhile calling for the adoption of gene technology in malaria control alongside vaccine development. Krystal Birungi, a field entomology coordinator at the not-for-profit research consortium Target Malaria, Uganda, said genetic engineering that modifies mosquitoes so they can pass their genes on to large populations could potentially contribute to malaria elimination in Africa.

In November, another event would momentarily take the spotlight away from COVID-19, with focus shifting to the UN climate talks, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

The summit opened with much fanfare and a slew of pledges, including on halting deforestation and cutting methane emissions. But a failure to strike a deal on funding for loss and damage – the irreversible harm from climate impacts – left many negotiators from the global South feeling short-changed.

Many delegates and observers from around the globe said that commitments made at COP26 were too little, too late, to protect vulnerable communities already living with the adverse effects of the climate crisis.

Ahead of the talks, a report released by UK-based think-tank Chatham House had warned that climatic hazards such as extreme heat, droughts and storms could trigger “cascading impacts” that may be felt around the world within the next decade.

In between such doom-laden headlines, SciDev.Net’s award-winning Africa Science Focus podcast has been the source of stories of personal endeavour and achievement in science. It heard from Priver Namanya Bwesigye and her banana research team at the National Agricultural Research Organisation, working to protect Uganda’s bananas from disease and pests.

Delta to Omicron

In late November, the emergence of the Omicron variant in South Africa further compounded the COVID-19 crisis.

African scientists say the COVID-19-induced travel ban aimed at limiting the spread of the variant was unscientific and could hit the economies of targeted African countries.

The emergence of Omicron has brought to the fore the “moral dilemma” over global vaccine coverage highlighted by the WHO at the onset of the pandemic.

In Africa, as the year ends, only 27 per cent of health care workers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with more 80 per cent of health care workers in high-income countries. This, as high-income countries roll out their booster vaccination campaigns.

SciDev.Net’s data visualisation delved into the impacts of COVID-19 on attitudes to science in the global South as the world neared year three of the global pandemic. Based on the Global Monitor by UK-based health foundation Wellcome, it reveals one positive to have come out of the pandemic: a rise in trust in science, in almost every region of the world.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.

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