World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday WHO is calling for a moratorium on COVID-19 vaccine boosters until at least the end of September, citing inequities in the global inoculation campaign.
Tedros said the move aimed to enable at least 10 per cent of the population of every country to have the chance at getting a vaccine.
“We need instead to focus on those people who are most vulnerable, most at risk of severe disease and death, to get their first and second doses,” Katherine O’Brien, director, immunization vaccines and biologicals at WHO, told reporters during a teleconference from Geneva.
Germany said in a statement on Monday it would offer a booster shot against COVID-19 to vulnerable individuals such as pensioners and people with weak immune systems beginning in September, using mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Britain and France are among the other European countries who’ve discussed plans for offering an additional shot to citizens in the coming weeks.
WATCH | Israel moving ahead with booster shots for those over 60:
Israel last month said it would offer a third shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to people aged over 60, becoming the first in the world to mobilize for booster shots in the face of the highly contagious delta variant.
“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,” said Tedros.
Pfizer looking to seek approval in U.S.
Pfizer, citing data from Israel on infections among the vaccinated, has said it believes people need the additional dose to keep protection against the coronavirus robust, as immunity may wane from original shots after several months.
The company has said it plans to apply for U.S. emergency authorization for booster shots imminently, but some senior health officials in the U.S. and WHO have characterized that plan as premature.
“We don’t have a full set of evidence around whether this is needed or not,” said O’Brien.
Health Canada has said it is monitoring the developments globally.
“There’s not enough data to suggest that in Canada we would go into boosting as of yet,” Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer in Ottawa, said last week. “But it is something that we’re watching very carefully.”
‘Catching up the rest of the world’ necessary: WHO
WHO has expressed its consternation about booster shots being administered in rich countries for a number of weeks but Wednesday’s plea for a moratorium were its strongest public comments yet on the subject.
Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to Tedros, said that “catching up the rest of the world” was vital. Aylward cited statistics indicating that five per cent of those living in Africa have received one shot of a vaccine, with only about two per cent fully vaccinated.
Some countries have only just started receiving vaccines through either COVAX, the UN-backed project to supply vaccine to lower- and middle-income countries, or directly from the United States. Other countries are having trouble getting shots into arms because of infrastructure gaps.
“We cannot get out of it unless the whole world gets out of it together,” said Aylward.
Aylward acknowledged in response to a reporter that a moratorium through September is not a long time frame, but that it would serve to establish momentum in redressing global vaccine inequities.
High-income countries administered around 50 doses for every 100 people in May, and that number had since doubled, according to WHO. Low-income countries have only been able to administer 1.5 doses for every 100 people.
‘False choice’: White House press secretary
The White House said on Wednesday it is prepared to provide COVID-19 booster shots when they are needed, suggesting it might not heed WHO’s call.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Washington can provide booster shots, if they are approved for use in the U.S., as well as donate excess supplies to other countries.
“We feel that it’s a false choice and we can do both,” she said.
Several experts who spoke to Reuters last month said a booster shot would be warranted if there is a substantial increase in hospitalizations or deaths among vaccinated people.
“That’s the line for boosters,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an adviser on vaccines to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
WHO officials reiterated Wednesday that vaccines are offering strong protection against the spread of the coronavirus, including the delta variant.
While about 64,000 people died around the world last week, according to officially reported numbers, it represented a decline from the previous week.