Public/Global Health

Biden risks global backlash on COVID-19 booster shots

Global health advocates are pushing back on the Biden administration's anticipated plans to start offering Americans a booster dose of coronavirus vaccine, arguing it will only deepen global inequalities.

Advocates argue that the evidence on boosters is not strong enough to justify wide-scale use and the U.S. needs to focus its attention on sending more doses abroad in order to stop the pandemic from worsening.

"Low-income countries still don't have enough vaccines to give a single dose to even their most vulnerable people," said Jenny Ottenhoff, senior policy director of global health and education at the ONE Campaign.

"This is just one more step that our government is taking that will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And this is not just some moral stain on wealthy nations; it's really prolonging the pandemic for the entire world," she added.

Biden officials are set to formally announce as early as Wednesday a plan to provide booster doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to ensure lasting protection for Americans amid the highly contagious delta variant.

The move would represent a rapid shift in policy for the administration, which for months has been trying to tamp down a push for booster doses.

Just more than 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and while the pace of vaccinations has been increasing in recent weeks, millions are not vaccinated and have no interest in rolling up their sleeves.

Officials have tried to walk a fine line: They want to make sure the U.S. is prepared for any future COVID-19 complications while also prioritizing reaching the remaining unvaccinated.

The White House has also promised to be a world leader in donating the vaccine abroad, including purchasing and donating 500 million doses of the one manufactured by Pfizer and BioNtech.

Federal officials have said 200 million of those doses will be delivered by the end of this year and the remaining 300 million will be delivered in the first half of 2022.

On Tuesday, the White House announced the first recipients: About 188,000 doses of the 500 million would be sent to Rwanda, along with an additional 300,000 doses from the existing U.S. supply.

President Biden and administration officials have also touted the fact that the U.S. has donated far more doses than other wealthy nations combined.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said it was a "false choice" that the U.S. would be unable to provide boosters domestically while also donating doses abroad.

"The U.S. is far and away the biggest contributor to the global supply. We will continue to be the arsenal for vaccines around the world. We also have enough supply and have long planned for enough supply should a booster be needed for the eligible population," Psaki said.

Ottenhoff said she thinks Psaki is right and that the U.S. has the doses to spare.

"I think more than most countries, the United States is in a good position to do this," Ottenhoff said.

"What the world really needs right now is leadership. That's what's been sorely missing since day one of this pandemic," Ottenhoff continued. "Most countries have been looking inward and haven't been really cooperating across global borders ... and I think the Biden administration is really well positioned to play that role right now."

Still, the number of doses shared by the U.S. falls far short of the billions of doses needed to vaccinate the rest of the world.

"Whether boosters are administered or not, more doses urgently need to be redistributed and allocated to health care workers and high-risk populations in low- and middle-income countries in order to vaccinate the world and end this pandemic," Carrie Teicher, program director at Doctors Without Borders USA, said in an emailed statement.

The group has called on the U.S. to not only donate more doses in the short term but also put pressure on drug companies to share vaccine technology globally and scale up production in low- and middle-income countries.

The U.S. would not be the first country to move ahead with booster shots. Israel launched its first-in-the-world booster campaign two weeks ago, targeting Israelis over the age of 50 who received their second Pfizer dose more than five months ago. France and Germany have both approved booster doses for vulnerable populations beginning this fall.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a halt to booster shots in wealthy nations, at least through September, as poor countries struggle with access to vaccines.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus earlier this month said richer countries have administered about 100 doses of coronavirus vaccines for every 100 people on average, while low-income countries - hampered by short supplies - have provided only about 1.5 doses per 100 people.

"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," Tedros said.

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