A person visits a relative with Covid-19

A woman prays as she visits a relative infected with Covid-19 at the Intensive Care Unit of the El Cruce - Dr Nestor Kirchner hospital in Florencio Varela, Argentina on April 13, 2021. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images)

WHO Chief Says Vaccine Inequity Is 'Giving the Virus More Opportunity to Spread and Mutate'

"It's frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated."

With Omicron now officially the dominant coronavirus variant in several countries, the head of the World Health Organization warned Wednesday that new--and potentially more dangerous--mutations will continue to emerge and spread widely as long as much of the global population is denied access to vaccines.

"The global priority must be to support all countries to reach the 40% target as quickly as possible."

During one of his final media briefings of the year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lamented that vaccine inequity remains entrenched and is at risk of getting worse as wealthy nations continue their booster campaigns while billions of people in poor countries have yet to receive a single dose.

"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," said Tedros, who pointed out that roughly 20% of all Covid-19 vaccine doses administered each day are "boosters or additional doses" rather than first shots for the uninoculated.

"It's frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated," the WHO chief continued. "While some countries are now rolling out blanket booster programs, only half of WHO's member states have been able to reach the target of vaccinating 40% of their populations by the end of the year, because of distortions in global supply."

"Enough vaccines were administered globally this year that the 40% target could have been reached in every country by September," he added, "if those vaccines had been distributed equitably."

According to our World in Data, the United States--where all adults are eligible for third shots--has administered just over 63 million booster doses, more than many African nations have been able to provide in total doses nearly two years into the pandemic.

Denied the vaccine recipes needed to manufacture generic shots domestically, much of the African continent has been forced to rely on donated doses that have been slow to arrive and, in some cases, close to expiring. The WHO warned last week that if current trends persist, the African continent may not reach 70% vaccination against Covid-19 until late 2024.

"It's important to remember that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not un-boosted people," Tedros told reporters Wednesday. The WHO has recommended that boosters be "targeted to the population groups at highest risk of serious disease and those necessary to protect the health system."

"We must be very clear that the vaccines we have remain effective against both the Delta and Omicron variants," Tedros said. "The global priority must be to support all countries to reach the 40% target as quickly as possible, and the 70% target by the middle of next year. No country can boost its way out of the pandemic."

Tedros' remarks came amid encouraging data out of South Africa, where the rapid Omicron surge appears to be fading as quickly as it expanded. Omicron was first detected last month in southern Africa.

Additional findings from research teams in the United Kingdom and Denmark--countries with high vaccination rates--indicate that Omicron causes less severe disease than other variants, though experts cautioned that such analyses are not conclusive and should not be used to justify the abandonment of public safety precautions.

"If the numbers are so big, it can still cause a substantial public health problem even if per case the risk of severe disease is less," Cheryl Cohen, an epidemiologist at the University of Witwatersrand, told the Financial Times on Wednesday.

As Tedros emphasized, studies have also demonstrated that existing vaccines and booster doses are effective against the heavily mutated Omicron variant. But such findings are unlikely to be of much comfort to people living in countries that have been deprived of shots thanks to rich nations' hoarding of doses and essential vaccine technology.

"All vaccines still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron, which is the most crucial goal," the New York Timesreported Sunday. "But only the Pfizer and Moderna shots, when reinforced by a booster, appear to have initial success at stopping infections, and these vaccines are unavailable in most of the world."

The two U.S.-based pharmaceutical giants have raked in massive profits from their vaccines, which were developed with the help of billions of dollars in public funding and government research. Both companies have refused to take part in WHO-backed technology transfer efforts, and the Biden administration has thus far declined to force them to share their recipes with the world.

Moderna's billionaire CEO said earlier this week that his company hopes to begin clinical trials early next year for an Omicron-specific booster, a shot that is unlikely to be widely available in low-income countries.

"Better boosters are on the way. Great, except who will get them, I wonder?" said Nick Dearden, executive director of the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now. "We're now in an endless cycle of developing ever better drugs to protect us from the vaccine apartheid we've inflicted on the world."

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