Boosters condemned as COVAX reins in supply forecast

Covax cargo
Ethiopia's ministry of health officials receiving the country's first COVID-19 vaccines via the COVAX facility in March 2021. Copyright: UNICEF Ethiopia

Speed read

  • WHO leaders urge wealthy nations to hold off on COVID-19 booster shots
  • COVAX facility reduces 2021 vaccine supply forecast by 25 per cent
  • Rich nations must ‘give up place in manufacturers’ queues’, says GAVI chief

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The debate over COVID-19 booster shots for rich countries intensified this week as COVAX – the global initiative to supply vaccines to the world’s poorest – downgraded its supply forecast for this year by a quarter.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said she was “very concerned” that some countries were talking about boosters while frontline health workers elsewhere remained without their first two doses.

She was talking at an update Wednesday on the progress of COVAX, where it was announced that the facility is projected to supply around 1.4 billion doses by the end of 2021– a 25 per cent reduction since the July forecast.

“I will not stay silent when companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesuss, WHO director-general

Only 20 per cent of people in low- and lower-middle-income countries have received a first dose of the vaccine, compared to 80 per cent in high- and upper-middle income countries, according to a joint COVAX statement.

A total of 230 million doses had been delivered to 139 countries by the end of August.

A number of countries have begun rolling out a booster shot to vulnerable populations, or are considering doing so, including Israel, the US, UK, France and Germany.

“We’re very concerned that some countries are talking about boosters when there isn’t a lot of evidence that vaccines are failing to protect people from severe disease at this point of time,” said Swaminathan.

“Many, many other frontline workers and healthcare workers in many countries have not received their primary course of immunisation.”

She said the world was still seeing around 4.5 million COVID-19 cases a week and about 10,000 deaths a day, adding: “This is not something that we should be seeing 20 months into the pandemic.”

A day earlier, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “appalled” by comments from an association of pharmaceutical manufacturers that G7 countries have enough vaccine supplies to fully cover all adults and teenagers, and offer booster shots to at-risk groups.

“I will not stay silent when companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers,” he said during a news conference.

He called on wealthier countries considering boosters to stave off until at least the end of the year “to enable very country to vaccinate at least 40 per cent of its population”.

“Third doses may be necessary for the most at-risk populations […] But for now, we do not want to see widespread use of boosters for healthy people who are fully vaccinated,” he added.

Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, said the buying up of doses by rich countries, along with challenges in scaling up production, and regulatory delays in the approval of two new vaccine candidates, had led to the lower supply forecast.

The 1.1 billion doses currently available for delivery between now and the end of the year would be “skewed towards” 92 lower-income countries participating in the Advanced Market Commitment, a financing mechanism led by GAVI, according to Berkley.

“We still believe that we can secure more doses for 2021,” he said, adding: “We cannot afford further delays… So we’ll be using all means available to us to ensure our partners and stakeholders match their public commitment to COVAX with action.”

He said GAVI was calling on manufacturers to be transparent about supply schedules, and requesting countries with enough doses to meet domestic need to give up their place in manufacturers’ queues.

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed the benefits of a third dose, in an online lecture, and said: ”We can do both: we can do a booster programme at the same time as dramatically increase the doses going to low- and middle- income countries, which is the reason why we [the US] have already given over 100 million doses to 90 countries and will be giving a half a billion doses by the time we get into 2022.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.

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