The World Health Organisation (WHO) has criticised richer countries looking to hand out third doses of coronavirus vaccines as Belgium announced people with a weakened immune system will get a booster shot.
During a press conference on Wednesday, the Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as well as WHO scientists, called for a temporary moratorium on booster doses to help shift supply to countries that are struggling to administer basic vaccination.
“The reality is that we are handing out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, whilst we’re leaving other people to drown,” said Dr Michael Ryan, Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme said during a press conference.
At present, just 10 countries have administered 75% of all vaccine supply across the world, and low-income countries have vaccinated barely 2% of their people, according to the WHO.
“I called for a temporary moratorium on boosters to help shift supply to those countries that have not even been able to vaccinate their health workers and at-risk communities and are now experiencing major spikes,” Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
He added that 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.
The WHO also emphasised that the current data is not clear on the need for an additional dose and that more evidence needs to be gathered.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stressed that more information is needed on which groups would need an extra dose, at what period after the basic vaccination and which particular vaccines people have received in their primary course.
She argued that, as the Delta variant continues to become the dominant strain across the world, “we should aim for as high a vaccination rate as possible,” stressing that “this can only happen if countries share the doses with countries who don’t have enough doses.”
Several hours before, the Interministerial Conference on Public Health (IMC) announced that people with a weakened immune system as a result of a disease or treatment would receive a third or booster dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
The decision followed a report by the Health Care Knowledge Centre (KCE) and the vaccination task force which found an extra shot “seems to make sense”.
However, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has not yet given approval to any vaccine for a third dose.
Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that, at this point in the pandemic, it’s critical to get first shots into arms and protect the most vulnerable before boosters are rolled out.
“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,” he concluded.