WHO slams wealthy nations' rush towards Covid-19 vaccine boosters

A woman receives the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as a booster dose at a pharmacy in the US. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) condemned on Wednesday (Aug 18) the rush by wealthy countries to provide Covid-19 vaccine booster shots, while millions around the world have yet to receive a single dose.

Speaking before the US authorities announced that all vaccinated Americans would soon be eligible to receive additional doses, WHO experts insisted there was not enough scientific evidence that boosters were needed and said providing them while so many were still waiting to be immunised was immoral.

"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," WHO's emergency director, Dr Mike Ryan, told reporters from the UN agency's Geneva headquarters.

"The fundamental, ethical reality is we're handing out second life jackets while leaving millions and millions of people without anything to protect them."

WHO called earlier this month for a moratorium on Covid-19 vaccine booster shots to help ease the drastic inequity in dose distribution between rich and poor nations.

But that has not stopped a number of countries from moving forward with plans to add a third jab, as they struggle to thwart the Delta variant.

The US authorities warned on Wednesday that Covid-19 vaccination efficacy was decreasing over time, and said they had authorised booster shots for all Americans from Sept 20 starting eight months after an individual has been fully vaccinated.

The officials said that while the vaccines remain "remarkably effective" in reducing the risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death from the effects of Covid-19, protection could diminish in the months ahead without boosted immunisation.

Washington had already authorised an extra dose for people with weakened immune systems.

Israel has also begun administering third doses to Israelis aged 50 and over.

Meanwhile, the US is sending 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Ivory Coast, which is battling a continent-wide spike in Covid-19 cases, a US official said on Wednesday.

Less than two per cent of people across Africa are fully vaccinated,

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"Thanks to the US commitment to playing a leading role in ending the pandemic everywhere, the United States is shipping this week 1,183,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine to Cote d'Ivoire," the White House official told AFP.

Shipment is being managed through Covax, the distributor backed by the World Health Organisation and the Gavi vaccine alliance.

While Ivory Coast has recorded fewer than 400 deaths from the coronavirus, according to the WHO, the west African nation is experiencing a third wave of infections sweeping the entire continent.

'Shame on all humanity'

WHO experts have insisted that the science was still out on boosters and stressed that ensuring that people in low-income countries where vaccination is lagging received jabs was far more important.

"What is clear is that it's critical to get first shots into arms and protect the most vulnerable before boosters are rolled out," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Wednesday's press conference.

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

"The virus is evolving and it is not in the best interests of leaders just to focus on narrow nationalistic goals when we live in an interconnected world and the virus is mutating quickly."

Dr Tedros voiced outrage at reports that the single-dose J&J vaccine currently being filled and finished in South Africa was being shipped for use in Europe "where virtually all adults have been offered vaccines at this point".

"We urge J&J to urgently prioritise distribution of their vaccines to Africa before considering supplies to rich countries that already have sufficient access," he said.

"Vaccine injustice is a shame on all humanity and if we don't tackle it together, we will prolong the acute stage of this pandemic for years when it could be over in a matter of months."

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