UK vaccine booster programme ‘counter-productive’, says head of Covax scheme

‘The difference between giving a third dose to a healthy young adult or a first dose to an ICU worker or elderly or immunocompromised person in a developing country – clearly one has a higher benefit to it’

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Monday 13 September 2021 14:30 BST
(AFP via Getty Images)

The head of the global vaccine-sharing initiative has insisted that it is “counter-productive” for the UK to roll out booster jabs to millions of Britons, arguing the country’s excess supplies would be put to better use in protecting people in poorer countries who remain unvaccinated.

On the recommendation of scientific advisers, millions of third doses are expected to be rolled out to double-vaccinated Britons from the end of September – though it remains unknown whether booster jabs will be restricted to the oldest age groups and those most at risk from infection, as opposed to all over-50s.

The government has said the UK’s booster programme is “probably the most important piece of the jigsaw yet to fall into place” for ending the pandemic – yet Aurélia Nguyen, managing director of the Covax Facility, said a more “holistic” approach needed to be adopted in tackling Covid-19.

“The difference between giving a third dose to a healthy young adult or a first dose to an ICU worker or elderly or immunocompromised person in a developing country – clearly one has a higher benefit to it,” she told The Independent.

“I understand the drive to offer absolute maximum protection but actually it’s counter productive [to administer third doses], in the sense that while the virus is still circulating and mutating across the world, then ultimately that’s going to affect the UK as well.”

She said it would be “more effective” to deploy the Western countries’ surplus supplies to poorer, less vaccinated nations in order to bring down infection rates and limit the possibility of a dangerous new variant emerging – one that could carry consequences for the whole world.

More than 251 million doses have been secured through Covax and delivered to 141 countries throughout the world. It aims to ensure the vaccination of at least 20 per cent of the globe’s entire population by the end of the year, but Nguyen admitted this target was “at risk”.

She said that limited access to supplies was “hurting” the Covax Facility, with manufacturers failing to prioritise their agreements with the initiative and instead servicing contracts that have been struck with rich governments.

“Pretty much across the board, manufacturers are making business decisions where they’re not prioritising their supply to Covax,” Nguyen said.

“If you don’t prioritise Covax it means you’re not prioritising the majority of the world’s populations, and honouring other contracts [instead]. This is what we really need to change given where we are today.”

Her warning comes after the World Health Organisation, one of the partners involved in running the Covax Facility, alongside Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), pleaded with richer countries to hold off on booster programmes until the end of the year.

The WHO originally called for a moratorium on booster jabs through to the end of September, but director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that little progress had been made in accelerating the transfer of supplies to unvaccinated countries.

“I will not stay silent when companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers,” Dr Tedros told a news conference.

Rich countries have offered to donate 1 billion vaccine doses to other countries, but under 15 per cent of those doses have “materialised,” Dr Tedros said. “We don’t want any more promises. We just want the vaccines,” the WHO chief added.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, also said that a booster jab was not needed for the majority of people in the UK.

“We need to get vaccines to countries where few of the population have been vaccinated so far,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “We have to do better in this regard. The first dose has the most impact.”

Nguyen said she was “fairly confident” that the world will eventually have the supply for booster jabs but said it was “a question of phasing and timing”.

“The evidence we do have now are that the vaccines are very effective against severe disease and death, including against Delta,” she said. “That’s where we need to prioritise our effort, in terms of avoiding severe disease and death.

To have the choice between deploying a third dose, which is not going to have an effect on severe disease and death, or deploying a first dose … clearly it should be the latter.

“After that the science will have evolved and we can accommodate for booster jabs.”

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