On Wednesday, the World Health Organization called for a moratorium on wealthy nations distributing COVID-19 booster shots to already vaccinated people, due to growing inequity in vaccine access worldwide. During a news briefing, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the moratorium should last at least two months until the end of September, as hundreds of millions of people across the world are still waiting to receive even a single dose of the vaccine.
"So far more than 4 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally. More than 80% have gone to high- and upper-middle-income countries, even though they account for less than half of the world's population," said Ghebreyesus. "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 is asking for this moratorium to last until at least the end of September in an effort to meet the agency's goal of vaccinating 10% of the population of every country by the end of that month. The agency's request comes as high-income countries have already administered nearly 100 doses for every 100 people, while low-income countries have only administered 1.5 doses for every 100 people due to a lack of supply. The director-general's request is also part of the WHO's plan to vaccinate 40% of the global population by December, said his senior advisor, Dr. Bruce Aylward.
"We need an urgent reversal from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries, to the majority going to low-income countries," Ghebreyesus said.
Wealthy nations are directly contributing to the disparity in vaccinations across the globe. In the U.S., millions of vaccines risk going to waste and are likely to expire over the summer, according to health officials. Federal data shows that U.S. states have administered 52.36 million fewer doses than have been distributed to them. That, paired with the fact that wealthy countries haven't come up with a viable plan to distribute vaccines to low-income nations has caused a global disparity in vaccinations that risk dragging out the pandemic even longer.
Haiti only just received its first delivery of vaccines on July 15, obtaining 500,000 doses for its population of more than 11 million people, the Associated Press reported. In Sierra Leone, the vaccination rate just reached 1% at the end of June. African countries across the board have only administered 5 doses for every 100 people, as deaths due to coronavirus are surging across the continent, according to The New York Times.
"No country should be begging for vaccines," Jessica Malaty Rivera, a research fellow at Boston Children's Hospital, told Refinery29. "This is a global pandemic and we are not responding in a global enough way. We can't risk more variants emerging that could be possibly more transmissible like Delta or even Lambda because the [global] population is so vulnerable and unprotected."
WHO's request comes as some wealthier nations are either preparing or have already started to give out booster doses of COVID vaccines as the Delta variant continues to spread and cases surge globally. Israel began administering booster shots to people 60 and older last week, while Germany announced plans to start offering boosters in September, The New York Times reports. France is also offering boosters to people with weakened immune systems.
But scientists have still not determined whether or not booster shots are necessary, with studies showing the immunity associated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is long-lasting.
"I think it's unfathomable that we are giving third doses to the general public, or considering that, when most of the world has yet to see their first doses," said Malaty Rivera. "I think that the situations in which people might need a third dose or a booster are extremely unique, like those who are organ transplant recipients, those who have been requested to do so by their doctor because of specific autoimmune or immune deficiencies."
Malaty Rivera also says that we are just not in the place to be administering boosters to everyone. So, before wealthy countries move forward with any plans to administer a third dose of the vaccine on a larger scale, officials at the WHO argue that they have an obvious incentive to fill the vaccination gap: The pandemic won't end unless every country is working together.
"It needs to be an all-hands-on-deck approach because we will never end this pandemic," said Malaty Rivera. "It has to be global. It has to be equitable. It has to be in a way that makes sure that some countries are not declaring victory before the whole world can actually declare victory. We are far from victory when it comes to this pandemic ending."