Omicron variant

Covering coronavirus – ten things EIU got right (early on)

The start of the year 2022 marks the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic. As we embark on our third pandemic year, the EIU’s team of experts has taken a look back at some of the many projections we got right over the past two years. 

1. The pandemic was here to stay (early 2020)

We never assumed that the pandemic would quickly fade away. In fact, our initial scenarios assumed that the pandemic was here to stay for several years: as early as April 2020 we forecast that social-distancing measures would remain in place throughout the world in 2021-22, causing serious economic disruption. Two years and five major coronavirus variants later, it is clear that the pandemic is not going anywhere. 

2. An effective vaccine would be ready in less than a year (January 2020)

In January 2020 we forecast that a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine would be available in about a year. We also argued that this timeline could be faster with public funding (which was massive) and genetic technology (similar to the one used with mRNA vaccines). This was a counter-consensus call, given widespread doubts that a vaccine could be created, tested and produced so quickly. A shot was ready within 11 months.

3. Rolling out the shot globally would be more difficult than developing it and rich countries would vaccinate far quicker than poorer ones (December 2020)

In December 2020 we published the first version of our map depicting our forecasts for global vaccination timelines. This graphic went viral, attracting millions of views on social media. It also attracted widespread criticism, as our forecasts were bleak: we assumed that most developing countries would not have vaccinated the bulk of their population before 2022 or 2023. A few months later, it became clear vaccine inequity would be a major issue.

4. Vaccine inequity would fuel the emergence of new variants and the apparition of further waves of coronavirus globally (January 2021)

Building on our pessimistic outlook for global vaccination timelines, we assumed from early 2021 that vaccine inequity would fuel the emergence of new variants. Four out of the five main variants of coronavirus were first identified in less-vaccinated, developing countries (South Africa for the Beta and Omicron variants, Brazil for the Gamma variant, and India for the Delta variant). Two of them, Delta and Omicron, sparked global waves of cases.

Our global analysis has shown that vaccine inequity will cost more than US$2trn to the global economy. Vaccine inequity also fuels the emergence of new variants. We have long been worried that one of them could, at some point, take us back to square one if vaccines become largely ineffective against it.

Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director, eiu

5. Vaccine diplomacy would become a major geopolitical trend (January 2021)

We were among the first to flag the emergence of vaccine diplomacy–China’s delivery of vaccines as diplomatic tools. We argued that this would be a transactional affair, with Beijing trying to extract favours from recipient countries. This forecast was prescient: in 2021 China was, by far, the world’s largest producer and exporter of vaccines. The Chinese leadership used the delivery of shots to convince other countries to ditch ties with Taiwan, for instance.

6. India’s Delta outbreak would set back global vaccine supplies, especially for emerging countries that depended on COVAX (April 2021)

In Spring 2021 the rapid spread of the Delta variant in India made us reassess our (already bleak) forecasts for global vaccine supplies. We rightly predicted that the Indian government would prioritise its domestic vaccination programme, at the expense of exports. We also assumed that this decision would deal another blow to the COVAX programme, which mostly relied on India-made vaccines to help boost vaccination in developing countries. 

We called the Delta variant a particularly bad one in bespoke briefings with government clients early on. In fact, we did so several weeks before the WHO called Delta a variant of concern, helping our clients prepare for the wave.

Ana nicholls, Industry operations director, eiu

7. Covid passports would become the norm in many developed countries (mid-2021)

From mid-2021 we assumed that many developed countries would adopt Covid passports or vaccine mandates to limit the spread of the pandemic. We also forecast that such mandates would fuel social unrest and spark debates about the balance between individual freedom and societal responsibilities. This prediction turned out to be true, with controversial Covid passports or vaccine mandates now in place in most developed economies.

8. Developing countries relying on Chinese vaccines would soon be in a bad spot (August 2021)

In our Q3 global forecast, published in August 2021, we wrote:

“The lower efficacy rate of Chinese vaccines poses two risks. The first is that the countries that relied on Chinese shots may need to administer boosters (a strategy that Chile, which mostly used China’s Sinovac vaccine, is currently implementing) or mix different brands of vaccines (as Thailand is doing). For these countries, the total vaccine bill may prove higher than expected—and in some cases unaffordable. The second has to do with vaccine passports; most Western countries do not recognise inoculation with Chinese jabs. This will hinder travel, further widening the divide between richer and poorer economies.”

A few months later, the emergence of the Omicron variant proved us right: two shots of Chinese vaccines (as well as the AstraZeneca and the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines) appear ineffective against infection with this variant. Although these shots still seem to reduce the risk of severe disease, this will pose tricky questions for the many developing countries whose vaccination programmes have relied on these cheaper vaccines.

9. Governments will need to re-assess their zero-Covid policies (August 2021)

Also in our Q3 global forecast, we forecast that the zero-Covid approach that some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, adopted early on in the pandemic would not be sustainable in the long term. A few months later, both countries abandoned this policy. China remains a major exception, however: the country is still imposing stringent lockdowns to control cases.

“The future endemic nature of the virus means that some governments will have to revisit their public health strategies. The zero-Covid approach that several countries (including Australia, China and New Zealand) have adopted is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Such policies represent a future missed economic opportunity if the rest of the world re-opens, as they imply the imposition of stringent lockdowns as soon as any cases of coronavirus are detected.”

10. A new wave of cases, fuelled by a new variant, would take place in late 2021/early 2022 (2021)

Throughout 2021 we assumed that the Delta variant would not be the last of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, our forecasts had long incorporated the economic and political impact of a new variant that would be first detected in late 2021 or early 2022, helping our clients prepare for it early. In late November 2021 the emergence of the Omicron variant in southern Africa proved us right.