A healthcare worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine to administer to a patient. AFP/Patrick T. Fallon
NEW YORK - The World Health Organization (WHO) condemned the rush by wealthy countries to provide COVID-19 vaccine booster shots while millions around the world have yet to receive a single dose.
Speaking before US authorities announced that all vaccinated Americans would soon be eligible to receive additional doses, WHO experts insisted there was not enough scientific evidence that boosters were needed.
Providing them while so many were still waiting to be immunised was immoral, they argued.
"We're planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we're leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket," WHO's emergency director Mike Ryan told reporters, speaking from the UN agency's Geneva headquarters.
"The fundamental, ethical reality is we're handing out second life jackets while leaving millions and millions of people without anything to protect them."
Earlier this month, the WHO called for a moratorium on COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to help ease the drastic inequity in dose distribution between rich and poor nations.
That has not stopped a number of countries moving forward with plans to add a third jab as they struggle to thwart the Delta variant.
While the vaccines remain "remarkably effective" in reducing the risk of severe disease, said officials, hospitalisation and death from the effects of COVID-19, protection could diminish in the months ahead without boosted immunisation.
But WHO experts insisted that the science was still out on boosters and stressed that ensuring that people in low-income countries where vaccination is lagging received jabs was far more important.
"What is clear is that it's critical to get first shots into arms and protect the most vulnerable before boosters are rolled out," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
"The divide between the haves and have nots will only grow larger if manufacturers and leaders prioritise booster shots oversupply to low- and middle-income countries," he said.