Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide will die needlessly from Covid this autumn as wealthy nations prioritise booster shots for their own “highly protected” people instead of sharing doses, the head of the Oxford vaccine group has warned.
Prof Sir Andrew Pollard said that while it was “possible” a third dose might help protect some people, the “potential benefit” for the vast majority was “small” because most double jabbed people were already “highly protected” against Covid-19.
Writing for the Guardian, Pollard said the “failure” of wealthier nations to share more vaccines this summer – coupled with their decisions to embark on large-scale booster programmes – meant large numbers of avoidable deaths were now inevitable.
Supply of vaccines to poorer countries is improving and likely to “get better”, he said. “But for many hundreds of thousands of people, it won’t be soon enough.”
Pollard said it was “truly amazing” that within the next month, 50% of the world’s population will have had at least one dose to protect them against Covid-19. But he cautioned that the “remarkable progress” the world had made against coronavirus was “tempered by an uncomfortable moral and ethical predicament”. “Simply put,” he added, “the doses still aren’t shared fairly.
“That global 50% vaccinated figure hides gross inequity. More than 95% of people in low-income countries are yet to receive even their first dose, while over 60% have been vaccinated in high-income countries. We are protected, but they are not.
“To effect change in global mortality this year, it isn’t enough to promise to share doses – 1bn doses in total pledged in June by the G7 – we have to actually give the doses to those at risk of dying, and stick the needles in before they meet the virus.”
Pollard said the case for boosters was not yet agreed by all scientists. “Most double-jabbed people are so highly protected against severe disease that a booster dose won’t improve protection much,” he said.
“But there is a much stronger case, and there is no doubt among scientists, that first doses are lifesaving for the unvaccinated. Unvaccinated people should be prioritised wherever they live.”
But as he called on wealthier nations to urgently share more doses with poorer countries, Pollard also pleaded with individuals thinking of taking a stand on the issue not to refuse booster shots if offered them.
“The ‘to boost or not to boost’ moral dilemma is not in the purview of individual citizens who ponder whether to roll up their sleeve when offered a booster by a vaccine clinic this week,” he said.
“A dose that is in the vaccine clinic fridge (or freezer) cannot be redirected to someone else in another country, because the regulatory hurdles and shelf-life simply make redistribution of this dose not practical. A protest against vaccination at individual level will be misdirected and risks wasting these precious doses. If you are asked to roll up your sleeve, then you should do so.”
Pollard added: “There is clear evidence of a failure by governments to serve the world’s poor. But, for now, individuals must make the most of the vaccines that their healthcare systems make available to them.”