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Unacceptable: WHO calls for halt on booster shots until poor get first doses

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The World Health Organisation called for a halt on booster shots of coronavirus vaccines through at least September, as poorer countries struggle to access doses, even for high-risk populations such as healthcare workers and the elderly.

“We cannot and we should not accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday (Thursday AEST) at a news conference.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the poorer countries need the vaccine now.Credit:AP

Tedros said the focus for now should be meeting the UN health agency’s goal of 10 per cent vaccination coverage in every country by the end of September. So far, more than 80 per cent of vaccine doses globally have gone to high and upper-middle income countries that represent less than half of the world’s population.

The remarks come as the United States and other wealthy nations weigh if and when booster shots are necessary and consider how to balance domestic calls for additional doses against growing evidence of an alarming vaccine gap around the world.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said the WHO was presenting a “false choice”.

The United States announced on Tuesday “an important milestone” of over 110 million vaccines donated to the world, she said, more than any other country has shared, combined.

“More needs to happen, but we believe we can do both,” she said.

The split between the developing world and the developed world is on display: a medical technician displays a fast result COVID-19 tester at a mobile testing site in Tunis.Credit:AP

In recent months as a small number of relatively rich countries have pressed ahead with coronavirus vaccination campaigns, the WHO, public health experts and advocates have urged rich countries to do more to share doses and increase global supply.

They have stressed, repeatedly, that the unequal distribution of doses is not only unethical, but could extend the pandemic by prolonging shutdowns and giving the virus room to spread and mutate in unvaccinated populations.

Now, the spread of the highly-transmissible Delta variant has countries with vaccine access considering third doses before much of the world has had access to one.

The WHO’s position on boosters is still shaping up. WHO officials said on Wednesday that they do not necessarily oppose giving additional doses to certain populations who are not protected by standard doses.

Senior Adviser to the Director General Bruce Aylward acknowledged that the moratorium may also need to be extended. “Is September long enough? Not on the current trajectory,” he said.

Officials in the United States say that booster shots are not needed yet. But there is growing concern among some health officials about the urgent need to give additional doses to people with fragile immune systems amid growing concerns about waning immunity in vulnerable populations and surging infections from Delta.

Some patients are trying to get additional doses, including those who are immunocompromised and are doing so at the recommendation of their doctors, clinicians have said.

Many patients have ’taken matters into their own hands and many are proceeding with additional doses of vaccine as they see fit,” said Camille Kotton, a transplant-medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a member of the vaccine advisory board to the C Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the panel’s meeting last month.

In Northern California, the Contra Costa county health department notified its providers July 23 to allow individuals who wanted a booster dose of any coronavirus vaccine to get one if one was available, only to reverse itself this week after realising it was in violation of FDA policy, a spokesman said.

Emerging data suggests that an additional dose in immunocompromised people may enhance disease-fighting antibody responses and increase the proportion of those who respond to the vaccines, CDC officials have said.

Debate over the need for booster shots has intensified since Pfizer and BioNTech announced last month they would seek regulatory approval for a third shot for all eligible adults, not just the immunocompromised, amid rising global concern about the Delta variant.

Other countries are grappling with questions over boosters. A booster campaign is already underway in Israel, where the effort focuses on adults over 60, and Russia. Clinics in Moscow started offering boosters in July, amid a surge in cases and concern about Delta.

Parts of Europe appear to be moving in that direction. The WHO’s announcement came two days after Germany said it would also start offering boosters to the elderly, the immunocompromised and those who got the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson shots, because they may be less effective than other vaccines.

France also plans to make certain groups of people – residents of nursing homes, those over the age of 75 and people with severe health conditions – eligible for boosters in September.

Pfizer vaccine.Credit:AP

Hungary will this month begin offering citizens a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. Both Spain and Italy have said residents will be very likely to need a booster, but have yet to announce firm plans.

In Britain, meanwhile, health officials have said they are preparing to offer booster shots in September, but are awaiting guidance from an expert advisory panel before firming up plans.

The Washington Post

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