World Health Organisation: Hold off on those Covid booster shots, please

It’s difficult to know what to think about this one: On the one hand, fewer organisations have had a more abysmal record in the pandemic than the World Health Organisation. First, they did not recognise the danger of the virus. Then, they actively helped China play down the danger of the virus. Then, they studiously ignored countries like Taiwan, for explicitly political reasons. They have issued consistently poor advice on subjects ranging from whether the virus was airborne, to whether masks are a good or bad idea. As a general rule, you’d have improved your chances of surviving this pandemic had you just chosen to believe the opposite to whatever the WHO said, since day one.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to have some sympathy for this reasoning:

The Director General of the World Health Organization has said that Covid-19 booster shots should be delayed as priority should be given to raising vaccination rates in countries where only 1% or 2% of the population has been inoculated.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said if vaccination rates are not raised globally, stronger variants of the coronavirus could develop and vaccines intended as booster shots should be donated to countries where people have not received their first or second doses.

In addition, there is a debate about whether booster shots are effective at all,” Dr Tedros told a news conference in Budapest with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

There are two separate issues here, which are highlighted (by me) in bold. The first is the issue on which the WHO unequivocally has a point, both in terms of medical science, and basic justice. It is absurd that Americans and Israelis and Irish people should be getting a third vaccine shot, assuming they want one, while billions of people in poorer countries have yet to be offered their first. The longer it takes to reach global herd immunity (and, even if everyone could get a jab tomorrow, it will still take years), the more chances there are for the virus to develop vaccine immunity.

There’s also the moral point: In the west, we are vaccinating people who are at very low risk of serious illness from Covid. In Ireland, we are vaccinating teenagers. But in other countries, which are poorer, the old and the most at risk have yet to be offered a jab. The same politicians who would absolutely sneer at nationalism like this when it comes to, say, immigration, are amongst the most ardent nationalists in history on the question of vaccines, because there are votes in it, and people are selfish about their own health. Voters are not too bothered about deaths in Somalia, and whatnot, because those are on television, and do not threaten their own, double-jabbed lives. That, however, does not make it right.

Then there is the second point: Does triple-jabbing work? The only country in which it has been widely trialled is Israel. That is, in part, because it was the first country to substantially vaccinate its population. Because of that, it was the first to receive the benefits of the vaccine. It was also the first to notice a decline in efficacy, as time went on. So, they said, let’s do boosters.

Is it working? Yes, they say, but hang on a minute:

A third dose of Pfizer (PFE.N)’s COVID-19 vaccine has significantly improved protection from infection and serious illness among people aged 60 and older in Israel compared with those who received two shots, findings published by the Health Ministry showed on Sunday.

The data were presented at a meeting of a ministry panel of vaccination experts on Thursday and uploaded to its website on Sunday, though the full details of the study were not released.

The findings were on par with separate statistics reported last week by Israel’s Maccabi healthcare provider, one of several organisations administering booster shots to try to curb the Delta coronavirus variant.

Those studies, of course, have not been confirmed in other countries, at least not yet. More importantly, it should be said, it is entirely fair to note that when Pfizer marketed their vaccine, they marketed it as a two-dose protocol, not a three-dose one. The very fact that a booster may be required is a black mark against their vaccine, and it does not make you an anti-vaxxer to say as much. There is also little reason to believe that if immunity wanes from two doses, that it will not also wane after a third. Might it work as a temporary boost to your immunity? Sure. But there is no evidence at all – and in fact it is impossible to present any, since not enough time has passed – that three shots are any better, in the long term, than two. Or six. Or eight. If Pfizer turns out to have made a vaccine that requires multiple (expensive) jabs a year, then the novelty will very soon wear off for the public, and governments, alike.

The moderna vaccine, on the other hand, seems much more effective. Maybe it was just Israel’s bad luck to go with Pfizer. And, it should be said, in keeping with my generally pessimistic disposition, Ireland’s bad luck, too. We’ve just ordered 22m more doses, you know. That’s enough to give us all multiple boosters.

 

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