The World Health Organization expressed concerns Thursday that rich countries spooked by the emergence of the omicron variant could step up the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines and strain global supplies again, complicating efforts to stamp out the pandemic.
The UN health agency, after a meeting of its expert panel on vaccination, reiterated its advice to governments against the widespread use of boosters in their populations so that well-stocked countries instead can send doses to low-income countries that have largely lacked access to them.
“What is going to shut down disease is for everybody who is especially at risk of disease to become vaccinated,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, head of WHO’s department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals. “We seem to be taking our eye off that ball in countries.”
Months of short supplies of COVID-19 vaccines have begun to ease over the last two months or so, and doses are finally getting to needier countries — such as through donations and the UN-backed COVAX program — and WHO wants that to continue. It has long decried “vaccine inequity” by which most doses have gone to people in rich countries, whose leaders locked down big stockpiles as a precautionary measure.
“As we head into whatever the omicron situation is going to be, there is risk that the global supply is again going to revert to high-income countries hoarding vaccine to protect — in a sense, in excess — their opportunity for vaccination, and a sort of ‘no regrets’ kind of approach,” O’Brien said.
“It’s not going to work. It’s not going to work from an epidemiological perspective, and it’s not going to work from a transmission perspective unless we actually have vaccine going to all countries, because where transmission continues, that’s where the variants are going to come from.”
It is country governments, not individuals, who are making decisions that could influence the equitable distribution of vaccines to other countries.– Dr. Kate O’Brien, WHO
Some wealthy governments want to leave no stone unturned to get their populations as close to full vaccination as possible. Many questions remain about the severity, transmissibility and resistance to vaccines of the new omicron variant, which emerged last month in southern Africa and has shown early signs of spreading faster than the widespread and deadly delta variant driving the pandemic now.
O’Brien urged a “rational, global perspective” about “what’s actually going to shut down this pandemic.”
“We have the tools at hand, we have the choices we can make, and the next days and weeks are really going to determine what direction the world decides it’s going to go in, on omicron,” she said.
Nevertheless, WHO says individuals in rich countries should follow the policies of their governments, some of which are enticing people to get boosters, which are additional doses aimed to buck up immunity from earlier jabs that wanes over time.
“An individual in a country, their dose is not going to get shipped to another country because they don’t take the dose,” O’Brien said. “It is country governments, not individuals, who are making decisions that could influence the equitable distribution of vaccines to other countries.”
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7:50 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Thursday morning, more than 267.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.
In Europe, the British government confirmed Thursday that an inquiry into an alleged lockdown-breaching Christmas party at the offices of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson nearly a year ago will also look at two prior gatherings involving government officials.
On Wednesday, Johnson urged people in England to again work from home when possible and to wear face masks in more indoor settings. He also backed the introduction of vaccine passes for crowded venues, such as nightclubs, and large gatherings, including big sports events.
Denmark’s government has ordered nightclubs, bars and restaurants to close at midnight in an attempt to counter an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said school students up to Grade 10 must study remotely for the last few days before Christmas break and banned concerts where the audiences have more than 50 people standing.
The measures apply as of Friday and are set to last for four week. Frederiksen said Wednesday that the omicron variant of the coronavirus is “expected that this will mean more infected, more sick and thus potentially more hospitalized patients.”
In Africa, South Africa, where the omicron coronavirus variant is driving a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, has seen a 255 per cent increase in infections in the past seven days, but only six per cent of intensive care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, WHO Africa official Thierno Balde said on Thursday.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers are lobbying the government to authorize boosters as supplies have outstripped demand.
In the Americas, Cuba has detected its first omicron case in a person who had travelled from Mozambique, Cuban state media agency ACN reported.
In the Middle East, health officials in Iran on Thursday reported 3,228 new cases of COVID-19 and 78 additional deaths.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 7:55 a.m. ET