The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has called on countries to refrain from offering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots through the end of the year.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said rich nations such as the U.S., France and Germany – that have large supplies of vaccines – should make the doses available for poorer countries.
Tedros also said he was ‘appalled’ after hearing comments from a top association of pharmaceutical manufacturers that vaccine supplies are high enough to allow for both booster shots for people in well-supplied countries and first jabs in poorer countries that face shortages.
‘I will not stay silent when companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers,’ he told a news conference.
‘Because manufacturers have prioritized or been legally obliged to fulfill bilateral deals with rich countries willing to pay top dollar, low income countries have been deprived of the tools to protect their people.’
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on countries to not offer Covid vaccine booster shots for the rest of the year and said rich countries should make doses available to poorer countries. Pictured: Tedros attends a news conference in Geneva, July 2020
Tedros had previously called for a moratorium on boosters through the end of September.
But wealthy countries – including Denmark, France, Greece, Germany, Spain and the UK – have begun or are considering plans to offer third shots of two-dose vaccines to vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.
Israel has been providing third doses to a wide swath of people who already received a full two-dose regimen months earlier.
And last month, U.S. health officials recommended all Americans get boosters to shore up their protection amid evidence that the vaccines’ effectiveness is falling.
Tedros acknowledged that third doses might be necessary for at-risk groups, but insisted the scientific justification for boosters remains unclear.
‘We do not want to see widespread use of boosters for healthy people who are fully vaccinated,’ he said.
U.S. health officials are continuing to assess the science and utility of boosters, and there are growing indications that the country may miss the Biden administration’s September 20 target date for a wide rollout of extra shots for vaccinated people.
The WHO chief said he received a message of ‘clear support’ from health ministers at a meeting of the influential Group of 20 – comprising 19 countries and the European Union – this week for a commitment to help hit a WHO target that all countries vaccinate at least 40 percent of their people by year’s end.
‘A month ago, I called for a global moratorium on booster doses, at least until the end of September to prioritize vaccinating the most at risk people around the world who are yet to receive their first dose,’ Tedros said.
‘There has been little change in the global situation since then.
‘So today, I’m calling for an extension of the moratorium until at least the end of the year to enable every country to vaccinate at least 40 percent of its population.’
The WHO says 5.5 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered so far, but 80 percent of those have been to upper- and middle-income countries.
Rich countries have also offered to donate one billion doses to other countries, but fewer than 15 percent of those doses have ‘materialized,’ Tedros said.
He noted that manufacturers have pledged to prioritize the U.N.-backed COVAX program, which aims to get vaccines to the neediest people in the world – no matter how wealthy the country.
‘We don’t want any more promises. We just want the vaccines,’ Tedros said.
Earlier Wednesday, COVAX managers again scaled back their target to ship doses this year, projecting about 1.4 billion doses will be available through the program by year-end down from about 1.8 billion previously.
They had originally hoped to ship two billion doses this year.
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which co-runs the program, said COVAX has faced setbacks including export restrictions from hard-hit India – a key producer of vaccines – as well as regulatory hurdles for some vaccine candidates and manufacturing troubles elsewhere.
But it also said deliveries are ramping up strongly, and another 1.1 billion doses are expected to be available by year-end through the program, up from 330 million so far. Most of those doses have gone to or are destined for poorer countries.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said Tuesday that about 1.5 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses are now being produced every month, and cited projections that a total of 12 billion will have been produced by year-end.
Dr.Bruce Aylward, a top adviser to Tedros, acknowledged that ‘some countries may be going ahead with decisions’ to widely administer boosters, but that the WHO call for a moratorium ‘makes a real difference.’
He said some countries – which he did not identify – have approached the WHO about whether booster policies could be delayed.
But admittedly, the WHO’s first call for a moratorium through September has not fixed the gaping imbalance in access to vaccines.
‘(O)ur role is to make sure that we put forward the strongest possible arguments and way out of this pandemic – and the way out of that is a moratorium and to extend it,’ Aylward said.
‘Because since the last time we called for it, the equity gap has gotten greater, the amount of vaccine available to low-income countries has gone down