LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The head of the World Health Organization recently asked for at least a two-month moratorium on COVID booster shots as vaccination rates lag in poorer countries. The WHO says it needs 11 billion doses to bring the pandemic under control and warned that the virus could continue to mutate into even more worrying variants in countries where it spreads unchecked with low vaccination. Meanwhile, boosters roll out in the U.S. later next month for those who received the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. We wanted to know the WHO's reaction to this. Earlier today, we spoke with Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson.
The U.S. - despite these warnings by the World Health Organization and this concern, the U.S. surgeon general recently said that he doesn't accept the idea that the U.S. has to choose between this country and the world, that it can work on both fronts. How do you respond to that and to countries like the U.S., Israel, Germany that have not heeded your warning and have begun providing boosters or plan to?
MARGARET HARRIS: Well, we certainly say look at everything you can do to get the rest of the world vaccinated and the unvaccinated, the people in your own countries who haven't had a first dose. This is where the issue is. Look at ways to increase the supply. Work with your manufacturers, many of whom are in the wealthier countries, to transfer technologies because even if you really didn't care about the rest of the population - and I know people in the U.S. do care. They care deeply about the rest of the world. But even if you didn't, this is the most self-interested thing you could do because we've seen wherever there are large outbreaks, wherever this virus is circulating unfettered, that's where we see the variants develop. Now, currently, the vaccines are protecting against severe disease from those variants, but it's a matter of time.
FADEL: Let's say you get to that 11 billion number and there are enough doses that are needed. Distribution has been a big issue, and some countries have returned or tossed vaccines that were unused. How do you make sure that, if these doses get where they need to go, that they get into the arms as well?
HARRIS: This is critical. And this is actually part of what we did when we set up COVAX. We went to all the countries involved, particularly the countries with weaker health systems, and worked with them to ensure that they would be able to receive the vaccines - not just receive them on the tarmac but get them into people's arms. That's absolutely critical. The other thing we've put in place is the ability to look at where vaccines are close to expiry, which particular countries could use them really quickly so we make sure that they get to the countries that can use them quickly.
FADEL: Does providing the booster in the U.S. divert doses from low- and middle-income countries?
HARRIS: It will because those doses will then be booked up and go to the U.S. But the other thing is it distracts from what we really need to be doing. If you're focusing on the people that have already lined up the first and second dose but you're not managing the people who have concerns, who haven't been given the right information, who haven't got access, they're the people you need to be focusing on. Also, it's not even clear what you're trying to achieve by having a large program in rolling out this third dose to a large number of people.
FADEL: OK, so let's talk about the moral question of taking a booster shot. It's going to be available later this month or expected to be available in the U.S. later this month for the wider population beyond the immunocompromised. Does the WHO recommend, then, that people refuse the booster shot when it's available?
HARRIS: I would say discuss this with your medical provider. But, again, I would say, please, if you're somebody who's vaccinated, which is great, help people who are not vaccinated to understand why this is the most important thing you should do this year.
FADEL: That's WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris.
Thank you for joining us.
HARRIS: It's a pleasure being with you.
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