WHO chief calls booster distribution 'scandal' as poorer countries wait for doses

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) called the distribution of booster COVID-19 vaccines a “scandal that must stop now” on Friday as poorer countries continue to wait for initial doses.

Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus slammed countries with the “highest vaccine coverage” at a WHO briefing for collecting extra vaccine doses and prioritizing giving their citizens third and fourth doses over getting at-risk populations in other nations vaccinated. 

“This is a scandal that must stop now,” he said. 

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In fact, he cited data that six times more booster doses are administered globally than initial doses in low-income countries.  

“It makes no sense to give boosters to healthy adults, or to vaccinate children, when health workers, older people and other high-risk groups around the world are still waiting for their first dose,” he added, noting that immunocompromised people are an exception. 

Tedros also pointed out that countries need other coronavirus precautions in addition to vaccines, saying, “No country can simply vaccinate its way out of the pandemic.”

The WHO has consistently pushed back against the necessity of booster shots as countries like the U.S. have pressed forward and opened third and fourth doses to growing numbers of people. 

In the U.S., certain mRNA vaccine recipients and all Johnson & Johnson recipients have been approved to get boosters at least six months and at least two months after their most recent shot, respectively. 

Children aged 5 to 11 also became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine earlier this month, and the Biden administration has said the U.S. has enough doses for all 28 million in that age group to get vaccinated.

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In the meantime, other countries are struggling to get high-risk populations their first shots. In order to reach the WHO’s goal of vaccinating 40 percent of the population of every country by the end of 2021, the world needs another 550 million doses, Tedros said.

Progress has been made though the COVAX program, co-led by Gavi, WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, which has sent nearly 500 million doses to 144 countries and territories. 

As of Thursday, at least 40 percent of the overall global population is considered fully vaccinated — but that number includes only 2.4 percent in low-income countries, according to the ONE campaign

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenRussian military buildup puts Washington on edge Russian prosecutor moves to abolish renowned human rights group CIA director says there will be consequences if Russia is behind 'Havana Syndrome' attacks MORE announced on Wednesday that the U.S. is working with COVAX to send out the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines to those living in conflict zones. The U.S. has committed more than 1 billion doses as donations. 

But at the same time, pressure is mounting on the administration to approve booster shots for the remaining American adult population as breakthrough cases have become more prevalent amid the highly transmissible delta variant. 

Still, studies have repeatedly shown the risk of hospitalization and death is much lower among those who received the initial vaccine than among the unvaccinated. Recent research suggests boosters further increase this protection.