COVID booster campaigns will prolong the pandemic, the WHO warns

December 23, 2021, 11:29 AM UTC

The World Health Organization called on industrialized governments to place a moratorium on vaccinating healthy adults with booster doses, and instead donate those jabs to poorer countries, warning vaccine inequality could prolong the pandemic and needlessly result in further deaths.

Only about 5% of the population in low-income countries is fully vaccinated. That’s because the world’s wealthiest 20 nations have hoarded up 80% of the supply for themselves, according to the UN body. Had vaccines been distributed fairly, the WHO estimates its member states would have already achieved its year-end target of inoculating 40% of their populations back in September.

WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus called for the booster-shot moratorium to last until the end of this year to counter a “persisting and profound inequity“ in access to the vaccine. The UN body has set out a goal of vaccinating 70% of the world’s peoples by the middle of next year, a goal that’s looking more and more out of reach.

“No country can boost its way out of the pandemic,” Ghebreyesus told reporters on Thursday.

It judged an extensive booster campaign in the developed world could create months worth supply disruptions. Top priority must therefore be given to vaccinating the world’s remaining high risk groups, the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Costing lives

“It’s frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated,” the director general said. 

This year, 3.5 million people were lost to COVID-19, according to the WHO—surpassing the number of deaths from HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined in 2020.

“There is no doubt that the inequitable sharing of those vaccines has cost many lives,” he added. 

Wealthy industrialized countries including the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom have all been urging their populations to line up for a booster shot as the fast-moving Omicron variant races through parts of Europe and the United States. In response to Omicron, the uptake of booster shots in European nations has skyrocketed.

Israel, meanwhile, has even begun preparing high risk groups for a fourth dose, with German health minister Karl Lauterbach arguing his country should prepare to do likewise. By comparison, no low-income country has yet introduced a similar booster vaccination program.

The UN body estimated about a fifth of all daily COVID-19 jabs now administered globally are used for boostering immunity or additional dose vaccination. Yet blanket booster programmes will only exacerbate vaccine inequity and prolong the crisis, the WHO concluded.

“2022 must be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ghebreyesus concluded.

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