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The World Health Organization Calls For A Pause On COVID Vaccine Boosters


The World Health Organization is calling for a moratorium on COVID booster shots, at least for the next two months. The WHO says wealthy nations should not be giving third doses to fully vaccinated residents while billions of people in lower-income countries have not even gotten their first yet.

NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us now. Jason, a lot of countries are already planning on giving out boosters in the fall or maybe even starting to do so. So this sounds like a very...


MARTÍNEZ: ...Strong statement by the WHO.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. You know, I think the WHO is actually getting quite frustrated with what it sees as global inequity in access to vaccines and many countries not doing anything to try to address that. More than 80% of the doses that have been administered so far in this pandemic have been in high-income and upper middle-income countries. And in the global scramble to get doses, poor countries really haven't been faring well, and they continue to struggle. You know, if you look at it, you've now got about half the entire U.S. population fully vaccinated. But in the Philippines, it's less than 7%. In Guatemala, it's 2%. Over in Nigeria, it's 1%. The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says wealthy nations have essentially been hogging these vaccines, and they shouldn't now start topping up people with booster shots while these low-income countries can't even get their most vulnerable people vaccinated.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We need an urgent reversal from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries to the majority going to low-income countries.

BEAUBIEN: You know, and this isn't just a global solidarity argument. It's also that from a public health perspective, you have to drive down the levels of the virus everywhere if the world is ever going to finally get this pandemic under control.

MARTÍNEZ: On that, what's the outlook right now?

BEAUBIEN: You know, unfortunately, the global outlook on getting this under control isn't good. Worldwide, the number of reported cases just passed 200 million. You know, everyone agrees that that's an undercount of the true number. But more significantly, the number of daily cases continues to go up. For the last six weeks, cases numbers up - the case numbers globally have been steadily climbing. Cuba is seeing a big spike. They went from having almost no cases at the beginning of the year. Now they're reporting eight, sometimes 9,000 new cases a day. They even took some hotels in the middle of the country and have turned them into COVID treatment wards. Elsewhere - Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand - they're all dealing with significant surges. This pandemic ebbs and flows. And countries that a few months ago looked like they had it licked, you know, now they're getting slammed.

MARTÍNEZ: I know the U.S. has been offering to send hundreds of millions of vaccine doses all over the world. How much of an impact, if any, is that having?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it's definitely a step in the right direction. It's absolutely what is needed right now. But it takes time to get those doses out there. Some of them aren't even slated to be delivered until 2022. And while the U.S. is offering up hundreds of millions of doses, the world needs billions right now. So the effort is going to take, you know, other actors, other nations coming in, as well. And it's not just vaccine doses. Many countries - they're facing logistical challenges in storing and distributing these complicated medical products.

MARTÍNEZ: Are we going to be done with this any time soon, Jason?

BEAUBIEN: (Laughter) You know, that is the big question. But from a global perspective, the end of this is still nowhere in sight. About 15% of the world is now fully vaccinated. But most of those fully vaccinated people - they're clustered in North America and Europe. The WHO has a goal of getting 10% of every country immunized by the end of September. But they're not really on target, even for that relatively modest goal, which means that you've got large parts of the world where the virus can spread, where new variants can emerge. I was talking with Ruth Karron - she's a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins - about this.

RUTH KARRON: We know that the delta variant will spread most quickly and new variants are most likely to arise in unvaccinated populations. So the more of the world that's unvaccinated, the more we are all at risk.

BEAUBIEN: You know, and that risk is also true in the U.S., where you've got many parts of the country that also have very low vaccination rates.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.