A booster jab of Covid-19 vaccine for vulnerable people is not a luxury but a good way to protect them, the World Health Organization has said, as surging infection rates and a pan-European vaccination slowdown produced a “deeply worrying” situation.
“A third dose of vaccine is not a luxury booster taken away from someone who is still waiting for a first jab,” Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said on Monday. “It’s basically a way to keep the most vulnerable safe.”
The comments seemed to a contradict a statement by the WHO earlier this month that available data did not suggest a need for booster shots. The body had warned that topping up already fully vaccinated people would only serve to increase vaccine inequality between wealthier and lower-income countries.
More than 30 of the 53 states that make up the organisation’s European region last week reported a rise of 10% or more in their 14-day Covid-19 incidence rate, Kluge said, while vaccine take-up, particularly among at-risk groups, was still low in several.
The combination of high transmission rates and relatively low vaccine coverage was “deeply worrying”, Kluge said, adding that several countries were starting to see an increase in hospital admissions and deaths across the region surged 11% last week.
Kluge said vaccine scepticism and science denial were preventing some European countries from controlling the pandemic, describing slower inoculation rates as a “serious concern” as case numbers climb once more.
Anti-vaxx sentiment is “holding us back from stabilising this crisis”, he said. “It serves no purpose, and is good for no one.” Health authorities must “look very closely into what determines vaccination uptake by population groups, then establish tailored interventions to boost uptake”.
WHO calls for Covid booster pause so those in poorer nations can be vaccinated – video
Kluge added that some countries in the region were also being held back by a lack of access to vaccines, with only 6% of populations in lower and lower-middle income countries having completed a full series of vaccinations.
And while across the region nearly three-quarters of health workers were now fully vaccinated, some countries had managed to jab only one in 10. “There is a clear need to increase production, share doses and improve vaccine access,” he said.
Nearly 850m vaccine doses had been administered in the Europe region over the past eight months, Kluge said, and nearly half its population were now fully vaccinated. But take-up had slowed markedly in the past six weeks.
“The stagnation in vaccine uptake in the region is of serious concern,” he said. “Now that public health and social measures are being relaxed in many countries, public vaccination acceptance is crucial to avoid greater transmission, more severe disease, an increase in deaths and a bigger risk of new variants.”
Kluge said “significant growth” in case numbers was being driven by the more transmissible Delta variant, which was now present in 50 countries in the region, a general easing of public health measures and a surge in summer holiday travel.
Other protective measures such as masks were also important, he said, but vaccines are “the path towards reopening societies and stabilising economies – and we remain challenged by insufficient production, insufficient access and insufficient vaccine acceptance.”
As millions of children return to school after their summer holidays, Kluge also reiterated a joint demand with the UN children’s fund, Unicef, that keeping schools open – and making them safe – must be a top priority for all governments.