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UN health agency slams richer nations over COVID-19 booster shots

With much of the world still unprotected against the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organization on Wednesday said it was immoral for richer countries to offer their populations booster shots to protect against COVID-19.

The condemnation from the United Nations' health agency came on the same day that the United States said it will recommend booster vaccine shots because of the risk that immunity against the virus will decline in the coming months.

About 4.7 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, but the vast majority of those doses have gone into the arms of people in richer countries. For the past year, the WHO has warned against so-called vaccine nationalism and urged richer nations and vaccine manufacturers to ensure the most vulnerable people around the world are vaccinated first.

But the Geneva-based agency's pleas have fallen on deaf ears and richer countries have rushed to vaccinate their entire populations to protect them against the deadly virus. This strategy has worked in one sense: The U.S., Europe and other richer countries have seen the number of severely sick people and deaths linked to COVID-19 drop significantly.

But richer nations are under fire for leaving frail and vulnerable people, including health care workers, around the world unprotected. This strategy may also backfire if new vaccine-resistant variants emerge in places with low vaccination rates.

“If we think of this in terms of analogy, we're planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets while we're leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket. That's the reality,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, at a news briefing on Wednesday.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO's chief scientist, said it remains unclear if booster shots are needed for the majority of vaccinated individuals. She said booster shots likely will be shown necessary for individuals with poor immune systems, but she said that is a small percentage of people.

“The right thing to do right now from the science side is to wait for the science to tell us when boosters” should be administered, she said.

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She said plans to provide booster shots will use up to 1 billion doses of vaccines. “This is an impossible situation,” she said. “I am afraid this will only lead to more variants, to more escaped variants.”

Richer countries argue that booster shots are needed to protect people from the more contagious Delta strain, a variant that first emerged in India last year and has become a dominant strain in many places. It is blamed for recent spikes in countries with high vaccination rates.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the pandemic, said the Delta variant is mostly hitting people who are unvaccinated but also infecting some vaccinated people because of the increased social mixing and dropping of restrictions.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said his agency's global initiatives to combat the pandemic by shipping vaccines, medical equipment and medicines to poorer countries is in dire need of more funds. He said his agency is looking for about $8.7 billion.

The WHO has a goal of distributing more than 2 billion doses worldwide by the end of the year but it has distributed only about 200 million doses, said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a top WHO adviser.

“There is enough vaccine around the world, however it is not going to the right places in the right order to save as many lives, prevent as much severe disease, as possible,” Aylward said. “The global supply is definitely a problem.”

On Wednesday, top U.S. health agencies said booster shots will be offered to all Americans in late September due to concerns about the decreased efficacy of vaccines over time. The Biden administration said people who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should receive a third booster dose about eight months after they got their second dose.

Tedros praised the U.S. for leading the world in sharing vaccine doses, but he urged countries to delay offering booster shots. He said low-income countries have barely vaccinated 2% of their populations.

“The divide between the haves and have-nots will only grow larger if manufacturers and leaders prioritize booster shots over supply to low- and middle-income countries,” Tedros said.

“There are billions and billions and billions of people who are unvaccinated and those billions of people live in the low-middle income countries,” Aylward said.

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Around the globe, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc. Globally, about 4.4 million deaths have been linked to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The number of coronavirus cases has surpassed 209 million globally. More than 4.4 million new cases were reported in the past week and more than 66,500 new deaths were recorded.

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Lisa Ferdinando/DOD

Richer countries argue that booster shots are needed to protect people from the more contagious Delta strain.