WHO Urges Pause on COVID-19 Booster Shots in High-Income Countries

Carolyn Crist

August 19, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The current COVID-19 data doesn't indicate that booster shots are needed, several World Health Organization (WHO) officials said on Wednesday.

Fully vaccinated people still have a high degree of protection against the coronavirus, they said. Instead, officials should focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable people worldwide before administering a third shot to those who are already vaccinated in high-income countries.

"We believe clearly that the data today does not indicate that boosters are needed," Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist for the WHO, said during a news briefing on Wednesday.

The coronavirus is primarily circulating in unvaccinated people, so the focus should be on people who haven't yet received a dose, she added.

"I'm afraid that this will only lead to more variants," she said, since variants develop among unvaccinated people. "Perhaps we're heading into an even more dire situation."

Doubling down on boosters in fully vaccinated people won't end the pandemic while the coronavirus circulates worldwide, public health experts told NPR. If variants continue to develop in unvaccinated groups in other countries, one of them will likely become resistant to vaccines.

To slow the emergence of more contagious variants, countries should work together to provide fair access to initial doses globally before anyone receives extra protection, WHO officials said.

"There is enough vaccine around the world, but it is not going to the right places in the right order," Bruce Aylward, senior adviser for the WHO, said during the press briefing.

Billions of people haven't received an initial dose, he added, and in low-income countries, less than 5% of the population is immunized. In middle-income countries, including most of Latin America, about a third of the population has received a shot.

"The problem is not enough people have been vaccinated," he said. "So our first priority is relatively simple: Get as many of the unvaccinated with two doses before you move beyond that."

The WHO news briefing occurred just before US officials announced on Wednesday that booster shots will be widely available to all Americans starting on September 20. Those who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines will be eligible for a third shot at the 8-month mark after their second dose.

CDC officials pointed to three studies published Wednesday that showed waning efficacy against the contagious Delta variant. A booster shot could increase antibody levels by "at least tenfold and possibly more," Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday.

However, WHO officials said countries need to pause for more data. Swaminathan said the appropriate step is to "wait for the science to tell us when boosters, which groups of people, and which vaccines need boosters."

Those who face the highest risks for hospitalization and death should receive two doses before fully vaccinated people get another one, WHO officials said.

"If we think about this in terms of an analogy, we're planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we're leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket," Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's international response to COVID-19, said Wednesday.

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