Give priority to high-risk groups in booster shots: WHO

The global health advisory also warned that the trend of rich countries providing booster shots to their populations while poorer countries struggle to get initial jabs may aggravate the pandemic by allowing the variant to mutate and spread at a faster pace

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As Omicron continues to spread rapidly across the world, pushing governments to impose fresh restrictions ahead of the Holiday season, the World Health Orgnisation (WHO) has said that booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, when introduced, should be backed by evidence and targeted at high risk populations and frontline healthcare workers. The global health authority has also warned against the use of booster drives in rich nations, while poorer countries struggle to administer their first doses itself, stressing that such unequal vaccination culture would give opportunity to the virus to mutate and spread further.

The Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE), which advises WHO, in a recently-released interim statement, said that the booster shots should be first administered to populations that are at a highest risk, while adding that, before that evidence is needed to prove the efficacy of booster shots in fighting the Omicron variant.

SAGE said the targeted use of booster vaccination is vital, especially when a decline in protection provided by the COVID vaccine is seen in high-risk populations.

“Evidence on waning vaccine effectiveness, in particular a decline in protection against severe disease in high-risk populations, calls for the development of vaccination strategies optimized for prevention of severe disease, including the targeted use of booster vaccination,” it said in the interim report.

Quoting a recent systematic review and meta-regression analysis of the four vaccines listed for emergency use by WHO including Serum Institute of India-manufactured vaccine Covishield, SAGE said vaccine effective against severe COVID has seen a drop by 8 per cent over a period of six months in all age groups.

“In adults above 50 years, vaccine effectiveness against severe disease decreased by 32 per cent for those above 50 years of age,” the advisory group said.

The WHO said more data is required to gauge the impact of booster vaccine in protecting against severe infection as well as mild disease, infection, and transmission, especially when there is a looming threat of more emerging variants.

The WHO statement’s assumes significance for India which began its vaccination drive in January this year by targeting healthcare workers followed by high-risk groups. India, which has so far administered 138.89 crore vaccines, is yet to take a call on introducing booster shots for double-vaccinated individuals.

‘No country can boost its way out of the pandemic’

Criticizing the blanket COVID-19 vaccine booster programmes launched by rich countries while poor countries struggle to get the first doses itself, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday said that such unequal access to vaccines could led to more mutations and spread of the virus and aggravate the pandemic instead of stemming it.

“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 said.

Ghebreyesus’ criticism comes at a time when the US is promoting booster shots for its population of over 16. Israel, on the other hand, on Tuesday, became the first nation to offer a fourth booster dose to people above 60.

Stressing that a majority of hospitalisations and deaths seen across the world is of unvaccinated people, Ghebreyesus said “no country can boost its way out of the pandemic.”

Health experts across the world have also unanimously asserted that the emergence of Omicron is directly related to vaccine inequality – the virus emerged from an HIV patient in South Africa which has fully vaccinated only 26 per cent of its population.

According to WHO estimates, only half of its member states would have vaccinated at least 40 per cent of their populations by the end of the year due to discrepancies in vaccine supply and distribution.