Rich Countries Rushing Booster Shots Into Arms May Prolong Pandemic, WHO Chief Says

The World Health Organization's chief warned Wednesday that rushing COVID-19 vaccine booster programs could further prolong the lingering pandemic.

Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on the leaders of the world's wealthier countries to help poorer countries provide initial vaccines for their populations and help reduce deaths and hospitalizations occurring primarily among the unvaccinated.

Ghebreyesus has long been a critic of so-called "vaccine inequity" in which most vaccine doses go to rich countries. Wealthier nations like the U.S. and Britain are already deep into booster programs while lower-income countries have struggled to meet vaccination targets or provide even one dose to many residents.

Ghebreyesus warned that "no country can boost its way out of the pandemic," noting that "the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not unboosted people."

In an earlier Twitter video, Ghebreyesus indicated that enough vaccines were administered around the world this year so that all countries could have reached 40 percent vaccination rates by September "if those vaccines had been distributed equitably."

WHO Warning
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called on the leaders of the world's wealthier countries to help poorer countries provide initial vaccines for their populations, warning that rushing COVID-19 vaccine booster programs could further prolong the lingering pandemic. Above, Ghebreyesus attends a ceremony at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on October 18. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Ghebreyesus said that, while vaccines have saved many lives this year, their unequal sharing "has cost many lives." In 2021, 3.5 million people were lost to COVID-19, he said, and "all of us need to take extra precautions" as the new Omicron variant advances.

The WHO chief has previously called for a moratorium on boosters for healthy adults until the end of this year to counter unequal global vaccine distribution. He said at an online news conference Wednesday that about 20 percent of vaccine doses being given every day are currently boosters or additional doses.

"Blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than ending it, by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate," Ghebreyesus added.

He said it's "frankly difficult to understand" that three-quarters of health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated, and distortions in global supply mean that only half of the WHO's member countries have been able to meet a target of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations by the end of this year.

Ghebreyesus renewed a call for manufacturers and other countries to prioritize the COVAX program to get doses to needier nations and "work together to support those who are furthest behind."

"Unless we vaccinate the whole world…I don't think we can end this pandemic," Ghebreyesus said. But he added that authorities now know the virus better and have effective tools to fight it.

"We need to add to that comprehensive implementation and equity, and hope 2022 will end this pandemic," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Booster Rollout
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has long been a critic of so-called "vaccine inequity" in which most COVID vaccine doses go to rich countries. Above, a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is administered at a pop-up clinic offering vaccines and booster shots in Rosemead, California, on November 29. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images