White House calls WHO criticism on COVID booster shots a 'false choice'

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Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, took issue Wednesday with a plea from the World Health Organization for wealthy nations to issue a moratorium on COVID-19 booster vaccines until more of the developing world has received its first doses.

“Our view is that this is a false choice,” Psaki said at a daily briefing at the White House. “The United States has donated and shared about 140 million doses with over 90 countries, more than all other countries combined. We’re donating half a billion doses to 100 countries in need.”

Hours earlier, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference that wealthy nations like the United States should hold off from offering booster shots for “healthy people who are fully vaccinated.”

“A month ago, I called for a global moratorium on booster doses, at least until the end of September, to prioritize vaccinating the most at-risk people around the world who [have] yet to receive their first dose,” Tedros said. “There has been little change in the global situation since then.”

He added that booster shots now being given in wealthy countries throughout Europe should be halted until the end of the year, or until every nation is able to "vaccinate 40 percent of its population."

 The White House press secretary Jen Psaki, addresses a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday.
Press secretary Jen Psaki at a White House briefing on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, booster shots will be made widely available in the United States on Sept. 20. They are already being given to individuals at highest risk for COVID-19.

Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy dismissed criticism of the plan to roll out booster shots.

“I do not accept the idea that we have to choose between America and the world,” Murthy said. “We clearly see our responsibility to both.”

“We’ve got to do everything we can to protect people here at home, while recognizing that tamping down the pandemic and getting people vaccinated across the world is going to be key to preventing the rise of future variants,” he said. “We know that.”

The disparity among nations is stark when it comes to the percentage of fully vaccinated citizens. Oil-rich nations like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have fully vaccinated more than 76 percent of their populations, but poorer countries, like Haiti and Congo, have vaccinated only 0.1 percent of theirs, according to data collected by the New York Times.

“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,” Tedros said Wednesday. “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 Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, in Kuwait in July.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. (Jaber Abdulkhaleg/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Psaki countered those criticisms by pointing to U.S. efforts to help other nations to manufacture vaccines, and said the Biden administration is justified in seeking to protect American citizens.

“Last week, we announced a plan to invest $2.7 billion in manufacturing critical vaccine inputs and expanded fill-finish lines at factories. From Senegal to South Africa to India, we’ve made significant investments in boosting global productions of COVID-19 vaccines,” Psaki said. “At the same time, the president, and this administration, has a responsibility to do everything we can to protect people in the United States, in this country. And as our health advisers have recommended additional booster shots, we are working to implement that.”

Roughly 5.6 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered to date, according to the WHO, but 80 percent of those have gone to countries that are considered either wealthy or middle-income. Tedros also noted that pledges of vaccine donations from wealthy nations have, so far, not “materialized.”

“We don’t want any more promises, we just want the vaccines,” he said. “We have the tools. It’s clear what needs to happen. Now is the time for true leadership, not empty promises.”

With reporting by Dylan Stableford.


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