WHO Chief Calls For Halt On COVID Booster Shots

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WHO Chief Calls For Halt On COVID Booster Shots
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for the moratorium because there is a gaping imbalance in worldwide access to vaccines.

Rich countries with large supplies of coronavirus vaccines should refrain from offering booster shots through the end of the year and make the doses available for poorer countries, the head of the World Health Organization said Wednesday, doubling down on an earlier appeal for a “moratorium" on boosters that has largely been ignored.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said he was “appalled” after hearing comments Tuesday 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. He said that’s already been the case.

“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 said at 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.”

Tedros had previously called for a moratorium on boosters through the end of September. But wealthy countries — including Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Germany, and Spain — have begun or are considering plans to offer third shots of two-dose vaccines to their vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.

“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 said at 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.”

Tedros had previously called for a moratorium on boosters through the end of September. But wealthy countries — including Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Germany, and Spain — have begun or are considering plans to offer third shots of two-dose vaccines to their 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, United States health officials recommended that all Americans get boosters to shore up their protection amid evidence that the vaccines’ effectiveness is falling. WHO officials insist the scientific justification for boosters remains unclear.

Tedros acknowledged that third doses might be necessary for at-risk groups, but said: “We do not want to see widespread use of boosters for healthy people who are fully vaccinated."

Responding to the WHO calls on booster shots, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. has donated and shared about 140 million doses with over 90 countries, "more than all other countries combined.”

She added: “From Senegal to South Africa to India, we’ve made significant investments in boosting global productions of COVID vaccines. At the same time, the President and this administration has a responsibility to do everything we can to protect people in the United States.”

U.S. health officials are continuing to assess the science and utility of boosters, and there are growing indications that the U.S. may miss the Biden administration's Sept. 20 target date for a wide rollout of extra shots for vaccinated people.

The WHO says 5.5 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered so far, but 80% of those have been to upper- and middle-income countries. 

Rich countries have also offered to donate 1 billion doses to other countries, but fewer than 15% of those doses have “materialized," Tedros said. “We don’t want any more promises. We just want the vaccines."

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.