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COVID: WHO rails against vaccine booster programs

December 22, 2021

The head of the World Health Organization says rich countries are merely prolonging the pandemic by fueling vaccine inequality. "No country can boost its way out of the pandemic," he says.

German vaccination pass with certificates for three shots
Wealthy countries are scrambling to get citizens boosted, the WHO says they are only making things worseImage: Weber/Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized blanket COVID-19 booster programs currently being pursued in wealthy industrialized nations as he spoke in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

"No country can boost its way out of the pandemic," he said, adding that such programs would likely only serve to prolong the pandemic as they rob poorer countries of the chance to immunize their populations.

While acknowledging that vaccines had saved lives over the past year, he said unequal distribution had likely also "cost many lives."

Tedros cited statistics showing that roughly 20% of vaccines currently being administered are boosters. He told listeners that the great majority of hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.

"Blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than ending it, by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate," he said. 

He also said that, if second and third doses administered in wealthy countries had been more widely distributed elsewhere, the world would likely have seen global vaccination percentages above 40% — a target the WHO suggests could bring about the end of the acute threat of the pandemic.

Omicron spreads as UK booster campaign ramps up

Tedros got backing in his criticism from the independent Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), which advises the WHO: "In light of the ongoing uncertainty surrounding global vaccine supplies and vaccine equity, decisions made by individual countries about booster programs must weigh the public health benefits to one's own country against support for worldwide vaccine equity when determining access to vaccines."

Is omicron deadlier than delta? WHO says too soon to tell

Those statements come as the omicron variant of the coronavirus quickly becomes the dominant global strain. Still, health officials say it is too early to say with certainty whether omicron is in fact more deadly that the prior delta variant.

Initially, there was optimism that, although highly contagious, the omicron variant might be less severe than delta, yet some experts say this could simply come down to the fact that more people are immunized, and thus better protected against infections.

"We do have some data suggesting that rates of hospitalization are lower," said Maria van Kerkhove, of the WHO. Still, she said, "we have not seen this variant circulate long enough in populations around the world, certainly in vulnerable populations."

Tedros on Wednesday said in a call for more vaccine equity: "As we approach the new year, we must all learn the painful lessons this year has taught us. 2022 must be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic."

The coronavirus has killed more than 5.6 million people around the world since the first cases were detected in 2019.

js/wd (AP, Reuters)