WHO calls for moratorium on booster vaccines for Covid-19

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) (Credit: Keystone/ POOL/Laurent Gillieron)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called on wealthy nations to hold off on the distribution of Covid-19 booster shots until at least September, citing widening vaccine inequity.

The health body’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom-Ghebreyesus, said a moratorium was needed to make it possible for at least 10 per cent of the population of every country to be vaccinated.

“I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected,” he told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

High-income countries had administered around 50 doses for every 100 people in May and that number has since doubled, he said.  Meanwhile, low-income countries have only been able to administer 1.5 doses for every 100 people, due to lack of supply.

“We need an urgent reversal, from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries, to the majority going to low-income countries,” Tedros added.

His call comes as many countries with advanced vaccination campaigns start considering  booster shots as part of efforts to slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Last week, Israel kicked off a campaign to administer extra doses to people over the age of 60, joining other countries including Hungary, Thailand and Turkey.

With many poor-income countries still struggling to get first doses into the arms of the most vulnerable, many critics have blasted the move to administer boosters as unethical.

Meanwhile, the potential benefits of a Covid booster vaccine are still being debated by scientists. The pharmaceutical industry and other supporters of booster shots have argued that they could be needed in the future, with Pfizer and BionNTech announcing last month  that a third dose of their vaccine has the potential to preserve “the highest levels” of protection against currently known variants.

A third dose for high-risk individuals for whom two doses do not provide adequate protection, is considered to be part of their “primary series” of doses and does not fall within the booster category, Dr Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the WHO director-general clarified.

Dr Katherine O’Brien, director of the WHO’s department of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals, said until better information is available, countries must be cautious about moving forward with booster doses and remain conscious of the inequity of access to vaccines. She also urged countries to continue to focus on other methods for preventing the spread of the virus.

“Vaccines don’t work a hundred per cent of the time in a hundred per cent of people, which is why it is so important that as vaccines are rolling out and population coverage with vaccines is increasing that maintaining the interventions that we have that we do know work — masking, handwashing, distancing, all of the things we have been communicating, those non-pharmaceutical interventions — continue to be really important,” she said.