The director-general of the World Health Organization on Monday issued a stinging rebuke to Pfizer and other vaccine manufacturers focused on developing — and selling — Covid-19 vaccine booster shots to high-income countries, saying they should focus instead on providing vaccine to nations that have had little access to first doses.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ statement came four days after Pfizer said it has data to support its repeated claim that a third dose of its vaccine will be needed to keep protection levels high. He also singled out Moderna, which, like Pfizer, is developing updated vaccines targeted at variants.
“We’re making conscious choices right now not to protect those in most need,” Tedros said in Geneva.
After 10 weeks of declining death rates, the global Covid-19 toll is again climbing, the WHO director-general said. “Not everywhere is taking the same hit, though. We’re in the midst of a growing two-track pandemic where the haves and have-nots, within and between countries, are increasingly divergent,” he added.
Tedros said the world needs Pfizer and Moderna to prioritize supply of vaccine to low- and middle-income countries, including through COVAX, a joint endeavor of the WHO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
Pfizer said last week data from Israel suggest “a third dose may be needed within six to 12 months after full vaccination.” The company did not release the data, saying only that a scientific article based on the results has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immediately pushed back, insisting that people who are fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time. Pfizer is reportedly briefing key U.S. government entities on the data on Monday.
But WHO officials said they have seen no evidence to date that supports the idea that people who are considered fully vaccinated will need additional doses so soon.
“It may well be that you need boosters after a year or two years. But at this point, at six months after the primary dose, there doesn’t seem to be any indication,” said Soumya Swaminathan, the agency’s chief scientist.
Swaminathan said four countries have indicated they will offer booster doses to some or all of their populations and a number of others are considering doing the same. She and other WHO officials urged countries to reconsider these decisions.
“If 11 high- and upper-middle-income countries decide … that they will go for a booster for their populations or even subgroups, this will require an additional 800 million doses of vaccine,” Swaminathan said.
Mike Ryan, head of the global health agency’s health emergencies program, was blunt in his criticism of the approach.
“What part of ‘This is a global crisis’ are we not getting?” he asked, saying the world’s focus now should be on an all-out effort to vaccinate the most vulnerable — health workers and older adults.
“We will look back in anger and we will look back in shame if we don’t now move to use the increasing [vaccine] production capacity that is coming on line … to protect the most vulnerable, protect the frontline health workers around the world,” Ryan said.