Countries across the world are currently split on whether or not to dole out booster shots of the COVID vaccine when there are hundreds of millions of people who haven't received any doses at all. On Aug. 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a pause on booster shots until the end of September at the earliest, but the U.S. has moved forward with third doses for certain immunocompromised individuals, and booster shots for everyone else will be offered eight months after second doses, starting Sept. 20. Now, the WHO is warning about the potential ramifications of going ahead with current plans, against the agency's advice.
The Associated Press (AP) reported that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, told reporters in Budapest, Hungary, that the organization is again calling for a two-month moratorium on booster shots of the COVID vaccine to allow countries that are behind to catch up. Pausing the administration of booster shots in wealthier countries would not only help reduce vaccine inequality, but it could also help prevent the development of new variants, Tedros said.
"Vaccine injustice and vaccine nationalism" increase the possibility that more infectious variants could develop, Tedros noted. "The virus will get the chance to circulate in countries with low vaccination coverage, and the Delta variant could evolve to become more virulent, and at the same time more potent variants could also emerge."
This theory is supported by research published in Science on Aug. 17. "Sustained transmission in low access regions results in an increased potential for antigenic evolution, which may result in the emergence of novel variants that affect epidemiological characteristics globally," the study explains. The new, potentially more dangerous variants wouldn't only affect the low-income countries they begin in, but would inevitably spread globally, like the Delta variant.
Tedros told reporters he was "really disappointed" by the lack of vaccine donations, with wealthier countries maintaining stockpiles of the vaccine while other nations struggle. He asked countries that are already offering third shots "to share what can be used for boosters with other countries so [they] can increase their first and second vaccination coverage." As Tedros pointed out, there have been 4.8 billion vaccine doses delivered, with 75 percent of them going to just 10 countries, while entire continents—like Africa—have vaccine rates that remain under 2 percent. "No one is safe until everyone is safe," he concluded.
Per Reuters, the only group of people Tedros made an exception for is those who have compromised immune systems. People who are immunocompromised and therefore have less protection from the vaccine should get a booster shot, Tedros said. The WHO doesn't believe boosters are currently necessary for anyone else. On Aug. 18, Reuters reported that WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, MD, said, "We believe clearly that the data today does not indicate that boosters are needed."
Following the WHO's first call for a moratorium on booster shots, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, defended the country's decision to roll out additional doses. "We have to protect American lives," Murthy told ABC on Aug. 22. He acknowledged that if vaccine supplies don't shift, "taking more vaccines for Americans in the form of boosters will take away from the rest of the world." However, he said the goal is currently to increase the supply to meet the demand. He also pointed out that the U.S. has donated more than 120 million vaccine doses, and has committed to donating at least 500 million doses.