As the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has prompted governments in rich countries to step up recall campaigns, the World Health Organization on Thursday again expressed concern that the surge would further undermine the global fairness of vaccines.
“Large-scale booster doses risk exacerbating inequalities in access to vaccines,” Alejandro Cravioto, chair of the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, told reporters.
Administering boosters now exceeds first hits in the world.
According to Richard Mihigo, WHO Program Coordinator for Immunization and Vaccine Development in Africa, “If we look at the data today, even before Omicron, we see high-income countries giving more booster doses than even vaccines administered in developing countries. countries.”
Because most of the current infections, which are still predominantly caused by the Delta variant, affect unvaccinated people, the WHO said, vaccinating those without protection should be the priority.
“Remember, we only have 8% – 8% – of fully immunized people in this region,” Mihigo said of Africa. “This represents about 103 million people on a continent of 1.3 billion. “
According to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford, around the world, around 73% of the injections that have been used by guns have been given in high and upper middle income countries. Only 0.8 percent of the doses were given in low-income countries.
WHO’s reluctance to boosters has put it out of step with governments around the world. Data from Israel and Britain have shown that an extra dose of the vaccine can dramatically reduce a person’s likelihood of catching the coronavirus and getting sick, leading many countries to expand their booster programs.
The WHO advisory group said on Thursday that preliminary data suggested additional injections might be helpful if given to elderly or immunocompromised people. However, Mr Mihigo said that at present there appeared to be “very little benefit from the booster dose for the younger population”.
Now scientists are rushing to figure out how Omicron could affect the pandemic and determine the effectiveness of vaccines in controlling its spread and preventing serious illness and death.
Pfizer and BioNTech said on Wednesday that lab tests suggested that a booster of their coronavirus vaccine offered significant protection against the rapidly spreading variant.
Although limited in scope, the findings have provided some encouraging news in a time of renewed uncertainty. Blood samples taken from people who received a booster injection contained antibodies neutralizing Omicron at levels comparable to those fighting the original variant after two doses, according to the Pfizer statement. While antibodies are the first line of defense against infection, they are only part of a larger and more powerful immune system response. Since antibodies are the fastest and easiest part to measure, these results usually come first.
President Biden called Pfizer’s data “encouraging,” added on Twitter, “It reinforces what my medical advisors have pointed out: that boosters give you the highest protection yet. “
WHO has warned of the risks of recall campaigns, as tens of millions of people in low-income countries have not had access to a single dose.
Dr Kate O’Brien, WHO director of vaccines, said that faced with the Omicron variant, there was a risk that rich countries would start piling up vaccine stocks again.
But Andrea Taylor, who tracks vaccine production for the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, said that while it was difficult to know the true state of vaccine supply and delivery due to a lack of transparency, recall campaigns are not expected to significantly affect supplies for low-income people. countries.
“Globally, we produce 1.5 billion doses per month, and we theoretically have enough doses now to provide boosters in wealthy countries, as well as first and second doses to at least 40 percent of the population in other countries, ”she said. . “In reality, however, these doses are not where they need to be.”
“Too many of them are unused in rich countries,” she said, adding that estimates showed the richest countries in the world would have around 770 million excess doses on hand by the end. of this month.
Dr O’Brien noted that efforts by rich countries to donate surplus vaccines had been threatened because the doses they offered had a relatively short shelf life.
Many poor countries, especially in Africa, find that they lack the capacity to get shots before they expire.