Push For Vaccine Boosters Could Drive Emergence Of New Variants, WHO Says : Goats and Soda Public health figures believe a focus on boosters for the already vaccinated will hasten the emergence of new variants among the billions of unvaccinated people — including a vaccine-resistant strain.

Why A Push For Boosters Could Make The Pandemic Even Worse

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We now know that U.S. health officials believe fully vaccinated Americans with the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines will likely need a third COVID-19 shot. That's amid growing evidence that the vaccine's waning protection against mild and moderate infection. But world health leaders strongly oppose the U.S. plan for boosters, warning that it could backfire. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff explains.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: So far, vaccine access around the world has been deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots.

RACHEL SILVERMAN: The inequalities in vaccine access and coverage are pretty stunning at this point.

DOUCLEFF: That's Rachel Silverman. She's a health researcher at the Center for Global Development. It's a think tank in Washington. She says there are billions of people in poor and middle-income countries who haven't had a chance to receive one shot.

SILVERMAN: You look at the African continent and some parts of South Asia and there is under 5% vaccine coverage - very, very low. Overall, almost no one is vaccinated, including the most vulnerable people and health workers.

DOUCLEFF: So there are many, many people around the globe who are at high risk of dying from COVID or being hospitalized. Yesterday, officials with the World Health Organization laid out two major reasons for why the world should prioritize getting these unvaccinated people their first shots before offering Americans a booster. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan is WHO's chief scientist. She says, first off, data show the two doses of Moderna and Pfizer are still doing the critical job they were designed to do - save lives and protect health care systems.

SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN: If you look at the outcomes that we're really concerned about, which is severe disease, hospitalization and death, those are clearly being prevented by the vaccines.

DOUCLEFF: Second, Swaminathan says, by diverting shots away from the unvaccinated, boosters in rich countries will ultimately help to fuel the emergence of more mutants like the delta variant, possibly more dangerous ones.

SWAMINATHAN: I'm afraid that this will only lead to more variants. And perhaps we're heading into even more dire situations.

DOUCLEFF: Why? Because research shows the virus is primarily circulating in unvaccinated people, not in immunized ones. Thus, to slow the pandemic and stop the evolution of more mutants, Dr. Mike Ryan with WHO says the U.S. shouldn't be focusing on handing out extra protection to those at low risk for spreading the virus or getting severely sick.

MIKE RYAN: If we think about this in terms of an analogy, we're planning to hand out extra life jackets to people already have life jackets while we're leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.

DOUCLEFF: Over at the Center for Global Development, Rachel Silverman agrees with the WHO's assessment.

SILVERMAN: If you're looking at the big picture - how do we get the world and Americans out of this crisis? - just doubling down on vaccinating Americans with more and more boosters while there continues to be widespread global circulation, we will inevitably have more variants pop up. One of them will inevitably be vaccine resistant. So it's a sort of myopic policy.

DOUCLEFF: And a policy, she says, that probably won't get America back to normal any faster.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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