The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Wednesday that blanket COVID-19 vaccine booster programs will not bring a definite end to the global pandemic, but prolong it, as poorer countries struggle to vaccinate their populations because of unequal access to immunizations.
While U.S. health officials urge citizens over the age of 16 to receive their booster shots in response to the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, many countries have still not administered initial doses of the COVID vaccine to the majority of citizens.
Wealthy nations largely regard booster shot programs as the answer to the rapid spread of the coronavirus’s latest variant, but, during a media briefing on Wednesday, Tedros stated that doing so would achieve the opposite effect.
“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,” he said.
According to the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, there are now more than 276 million coronavirus infections worldwide and 5.3 million deaths. The United States leads with more than 51 million confirmed cases and 810,000 deaths.
Tedros stressed that vaccine inequality will allow the pandemic to continue. Countries with low access to initial doses of the vaccine will become breeding grounds for mutant variants of the virus.
For instance, health experts warned that the omicron strain was linked to vaccine inequality, according to NBC News. This strain of the infection is thought to have emerged from a South African HIV patient, where only 26% of the population are fully vaccinated.
Low inoculation rates in countries such as South Africa present ideal circumstances for the infection to spread and significantly mutate. People with compromised immune systems are more vulnerable to the virus, as it can live in these hosts for a long time.
If inequalities in vaccine access continue, mutant strains may continue to emerge.
Tedros pointed to the situation among WHO member states, only half of which have vaccinated 40% of their populations by the end of this year, due to “distortions in global supply.”
The director-general stated that enough vaccines were administered across the world and that had they been distributed equitably, a targeted vaccination rate of 40% could have been achieved in every country by September.
“No country can boost its way out of the pandemic,” Tedros said.
In order to increase vaccination rates globally, he said that global priority must shift to assist all countries in reaching a rate of 40% as soon as possible, as well as the 70% target by the middle of 2022.
Despite rampant vaccine inequalities, Tedros expressed hope in achieving these goals, saying that the WHO is “encouraged that supply is improving.”
“As we approach a new year, we must all learn the painful lessons this year taught us,” Tedros said. “2022 must be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it must also be the beginning of something else—a new era of solidarity.”