Western nations’ booster shot rush sparks debate on vaccine fairness

VIENNA/PARIS — The U.S. and other rich nations have moved to start a third round of coronavirus shots to defend their economic recoveries, even as international health officials warn this risks worsening global disparities in vaccine rates.

The U.S. announced Wednesday a plan for every adult who obtained the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine to receive a booster shot from the same brand eight months after the last injection.

Fifty-one percent of Americans have completed their coronavirus vaccinations, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. But as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise, threating the economy’s reopening.

President Joe Biden described the boosters, which will become available in late September, as the “the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that could arise.”

The U.S. is not alone. Germany and France will offer boosters to senior citizens starting next month. The U.K. is considering the extra shots as well. Israel, which leads the world in the pace of vaccinations, has already given boosters to over 1 million people.

Japan, whose vaccine rollout has faced shortages and other setbacks, also is looking at a third round of shots.

“If booster shots are necessary for health care workers involved in coronavirus treatment, we are preparing so that we can handle that,” Taro Kono, the cabinet point man for vaccines, said Thursday.

Health care workers started receiving inoculations in February, so October will mark the eighth month.

One point of contention in the booster shot debate is effectiveness. Moderna released data this month showing that protection against delta and other variants begins to fall six months after injections. Pfizer has said people likely will need a third dose six to 12 months after receiving the second dose.

But the World Health Organization maintains that no hard scientific evidence supports a need for booster shots. Boosters will only prolong the global disparities in vaccine supplies, WHO said.

A health worker administers an AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in Nairobi that was donated to Kenya by the U.K.   © Reuters

“I called for a temporary moratorium on boosters to help shift supply to those countries that have not been able to vaccinate their health workers and at-risk communities and are now experiencing major spikes,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, told reporters Wednesday.

The disparities in vaccine supply are linked to delays experienced by COVAX, the worldwide vaccine access initiative spearheaded by the WHO. High-income countries and others contribute funding to buy vaccines with a goal of fair distribution. The shots are provided at no charge to 92 low-income nations.

The goal was to supply 2 billion doses this year, but only about 200 million were delivered as of mid-August.

Vaccination rates in high-income countries exceed 100 doses for every 100 people, Oxford University’s Our World in Data shows. But in low-income countries, the rate sits at 1.8 doses per 100 people. In Africa, which is particularly dependent on COVAX, the number of weekly deaths has climbed to record levels amid a shortage of vaccines.

Leaders from the Group of Seven major economies decided at their June summit to provide 870 million doses through COVAX. About half would be delivered this year.

But COVAX also shares vaccines with developed countries that put up the funding. This year, 485 million doses are set to be distributed to developed nations, the British medical journal Lancet reports. That number would seem to leave none for the supplies that G-7 nations promised to developing countries.

European Union members planned to supply developing nations with 160 million doses, including those sent through COVAX, but fewer than 4 million doses were supplied as of mid-July, Reuters reports.

Though India is a leading manufacturer of vaccines, exports have been put on hold since spring due to the country’s epidemic. The timeline for exports to resume remains up in the air. COVAX was to procure 1.1 billion doses from India.

The delays have drawn the ire of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who said his country has not received vaccines despite its funding contributions.

“The COVAX system has failed Venezuela,” Maduro said.

Vaccine demand is expected to rise in the long term, adding to the cost burden. Both Pfizer and Moderna have lifted prices in their contracts with the EU, the Financial Times reports. Pfizer now demands 19.50 euros ($22.84) per dose, up from 15.50 euros, the report says. COVAX may encounter similar price hikes.

The supply gap from developing countries has created an opening for China’s vaccine diplomacy. China says it has supplied over 750 million doses to more than 100 countries and territories. It was announced on Aug. 5 that the Asian power intends to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of the year.

Other buyers are moving to secure vaccines independently. In July, Taiwanese officials approved a candidate developed by a local company for emergency use. The West African country of Senegal has partnered with the EU to build a vaccine plant within its borders.


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