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Do COVID-19 booster shots in wealthy countries put the world at risk?

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 September 2021 09:30 GMT

A health worker administers a dose of the COVID-19 booster vaccine, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at Midland House in Derby, Britain, September 20, 2021. REUTERS/Carl Recine

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Plans to offer booster shots in richer nations are diverting supplies from unvaccinated, high-risk people in poorer countries, critics say

By Sonia Elks

Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As U.S. President Joe Biden convenes a virtual coronavirus summit of world leaders on Wednesday, critics say plans to offer booster shots in wealthy nations are diverting supplies from unvaccinated, high-risk people in poor countries.

U.S. regulators could authorise a top-up shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for older and some high-risk Americans in time for the government to roll them out by Friday - a step that would go against World Health Organization (WHO) advice.

RELATED: Infographics show how unequal the global coronavirus vaccine rollout has been

Here's what you need to know about the shots and the evidence for and against:

Which other countries are planning third shots?

Israel is already giving them to all adults and children aged 12 or over, while Russia, Chile, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea are among the countries that have also approved mass boosters for most or all of the population.

Others, including China, Britain and Germany have announced boosters for those considered more vulnerable from COVID-19, such as older people and health workers.

More countries are likely to bring out their own booster shot programmes to prevent a surge in cases over the northern hemisphere winter.

Who is most in need of vaccines?

Boosters can increase antibodies and give stronger protection against COVID-19, health experts said.

However, the WHO said last month data suggested people's immunity had not waned enough for their first-round jabs to need a top-up, and that shots should go to ensuring the world was vaccinated first.

An estimated 11 billion does are needed to give everyone in the world two jabs. And while wealthy nations are rolling out third vaccines, fewer than 2% of people in low-income countries have had even one dose.

In the UAE, one of the countries introducing boosters, more than 90% of the population have had at least one dose. In Britain the figure is over 70% and the United States is at 63%, shows the Our World in Data project co-led by Oxford University.      

Meanwhile, Nigeria, Uganda and Ethiopia all have only just over 2% of their populations vaccinated - the majority with only one shot. In Syria, only 1.6% of people have been reached, and in Haiti, just 0.4%.

The lack of vaccines in poorer nations is not only fuelling global case numbers and deaths, but also risks allowing new, more dangerous coronavirus variants to develop, according to some leading global health experts.

On the other hand, richer countries - many of which are seeing a surge in cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant - want to protect their most vulnerable people with boosters to offset waning protection.

"It's a difficult balance – what do you do for your own country and what do you do for the global population?" said Sian Griffiths, a past president of the Faculty of Public Health in Britain.

Are booster jabs impacting supplies in poorer countries?

With global demand for jabs outstripping immediate supply, every extra dose going to a wealthy nation is one that cannot reach poorer countries.

"There is enough vaccine around the world, but it is not going to the right places in the right order," said WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward in a recent comment on the programmes.

Booster shot programmes would make it hard for Africa to meet its target for vaccinating 60% to 70% of the continent's people, the African Union's top health official said this month. 

Some say the situation is more complex.

The number of booster jabs used by individual countries such as Britain represents a "drop in the ocean" of total global need, said virologist Lawrence Young, from the Warwick Medical School in Britain.

But the row highlights the urgent need to develop a wider range of shots and increase manufacturing capacity, he said.

What about the risk from variants if much of the world is left unprotected?

This is a real concern - leaving the virus to spread and mutate through a large pool of unvaccinated people increases the risk that new and more dangerous variants could emerge.

That highlights the risk to all nations from failing to protect everyone, said Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccine alliance.

The bottom line?

Whether or not richer countries launch booster campaigns, they must help ensure more people are protected against COVID-19 - a step that would in turn safeguard their own populations, health experts said.

"As long as the virus continues to grow and spread in populations, it will continue to mutate," said Young, adding that the emergence of the Delta variant had already been a "game changer".

"We can't think that we're somehow out of the woods because everyone is OK in this country," he added, describing the situation in Britain.

"We've got to think more globally about how we stamp out the spread of infection and one way to do that is to vaccinate."

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