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WHO says booster shots outstrip science, blind to vaccine inequity

… Africa needs 500m more doses for 2021

The growing interest in administering booster doses over waning immunity from full COVID-19 vaccinations could be a decision moving ahead of the science of vaccines, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned.

The move also marks a loss of touch with the current realities of inequitable vaccine access around the world, especially in Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director, Africa, said during an update on vaccinations on the continent.

According to Moeti, current evidence shows that the third dose should be given only to people facing severe illness and high risk of death despite being fully vaccinated, particularly those with compromised immune systems.

A consensus has not been reached on whether immunity against severe illness wanes over time to the degree of requiring booster shots.

Questions on the table as the Food and Drug Administration’s independent panel of vaccine advisers discuss with Pfizer-BioNTech on approval of booster shots are how much immunity is waning; how severe breakthrough infections are; how much the booster shots will last and whether boosters reduce infections.

Read Also: Vaccine scarcity: WHO hunts for surplus Covid-19 doses to fix shortages in Africa

“For now, while so many people around the world are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine, fully vaccinated healthy people should not be given booster doses. It’s in everyone’s interest to close the huge gap in vaccine equity,” Moeti said, noting that the quickest way to end this pandemic is for countries with reserves to release them for others to purchase.

Vaccination coverage remains very low with only 3.6 percent of Africa’s population fully vaccinated amid the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant across 32 African countries.

COVAX, the global facility for vaccine distribution last week cut its supply by 25 percent due to the lingering export ban in India and hoarding in other producing regions, bashing the vaccination goals of countries, including Nigeria.

With COVAX and the African Union locked out of the market, the scheme will miss its 40 percent global target for 2021. The 470 million doses expected by December will only be enough to vaccinate just 17 percent of all Africans.

Africa still needs 500 million more doses of vaccine to reach the year-end goal, even if all shipments through COVAX and the African Union arrived, Moeti said.

At this rate the continent may only reach the 40 percent target by the end of March 2022, she said.

Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, co-chair of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance (AVDA), who also spoke during the briefing, said the global pandemic had served as a reminder of the underlying inequities, spotlighting the power and balances between countries that have access to vaccines, that are able to bounce back from COVID-19 and even provide booster doses.

She questioned what the African alliance had done about vaccines, asking that the African leadership must be held accountable for their failures.

“Other than the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, Paul Kagame, and the likes in bringing response, there has been a very loud silence from the rest of Africa’s political leadership and even worse some of our leaders have seen this pandemic as a way to enrich themselves and take even more from those in need,” she said.

She also called for increased transparency on vaccine supplies to aid preparations in various countries and urged African leaders to play up equitable vaccine access as the UN General Assembly prepares to meet next week.

In a separate interview with CNN last Friday, John Nkengasong, director, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said access to vaccines remained the key challenge of COVAX.

Many countries have the money in Africa to buy the vaccines, he stated, noting that through Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, the AU had secure up to 400 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

“We want other producers to enable African countries to have access to the vaccine market. It is really for our collective security interest to expand the vaccines to those who have not been vaccinated,” he said.

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