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World Health Organization Asks Wealthy Countries to Delay COVID-19 Booster Shots

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Key Takeaways

  • The WHO is calling for a temporary ban on COVID-19 booster shots in order to make sure existing doses are better distributed globally.
  • The CDC has not yet made a recommendation on whether or which booster shot might be needed for COVID-19 in the United States, but could make a decision in the next few weeks. 
  • Some countries are already administering boosters to older and/or immunocompromised individuals. And some individuals are seeking out boosters for themselves.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a temporary ban on administering COVID-19 booster shots until at least the end of September “to enable at least [10 percent] of the population of every country to be vaccinated.”

“Even while hundreds of millions of people are still waiting for their first dose, some rich countries are moving towards booster doses,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus, MD, said at the August 4 media briefing.

What Is a Booster Shot?

A booster shot for COVID-19 refers to a vaccine administered in addition to the currently authorized regimen. Because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are authorized for a two-dose regimen, a third dose would be considered a booster.

That’s true. Last month, Israel began giving residents over the age of 60 a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Germany, France, and a few other countries have announced that they will soon begin giving booster shots to older and/or immunocompromised individuals. 

But the problem the developing world faces in getting more vaccines may have little to do with the quantity of doses in wealthier nations.

“We can’t necessarily collect doses intended to be boosters in wealthier countries and ship them to poorer ones,” Sharmila Anandasabapathy, MD,  professor of medicine in gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, tells Verywell. She says logistics such as cold storage for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have made it difficult to send some countries the specific vaccines many wealthier countries are using.

“We need vaccines that can be easily administered in those regions as well as technology transfer, from the manufacturers, to develop the vaccines in those regions,” Anandasabapathy says.

Vaccine scarcity and financing are two major reasons why vaccination rates are still so low in some countries, Shama Cash-Goldwasser, MD, MPH, senior technical advisor at Resolve to Save Lives, a public health non-profit, tells Verywell. 

“Vaccine supply remains a constraint,” Cash-Goldwasser says. “The supply of all authorized vaccines—Western, Chinese, Russian and Indian—is increasing…but we need additional output of safe and efficient vaccines now. This requires that countries which have amassed more vaccine than needed for their populations to share their supply, and Moderna and Pfizer to immediately share their technology." 

Why Can't Countries Easily Share Their Vaccine Supply?

Reporting last month in the journal Nature found that while many countries have made pledges for vaccines to the developing world, those pledges “will be offset by restrictions on exports.” That’s because both the European Union and the United States both prohibit exports of some vaccines and vaccine ingredients, and the EU is insisting companies fulfill their pledges to deliver vaccines to the EU before exporting elsewhere.

In February, Nature reported that India, which makes six out of every 10 COVID-19 vaccine doses, ordered the country’s manufacturers to stop exporting COVID-19 vaccines. The Nature report quoted WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan who said that “the inequitable distribution of vaccines has allowed the virus to continue spreading.”

If WHO was hoping for the U.S. to commit to holding back on boosters shots through September, the White House did not exactly comply. At Wednesday’s daily press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. can do both: send vaccines to the developing world even if it decides to authorize booster shots for Americans. 

Psaki said the White House announced earlier in the week that over 110 million vaccines had been donated to the rest of the world, “more than any other country has shared, combined.”  

Psaki added that the U.S. has enough vaccines to make sure every American has access to one.

“If the FDA decides that boosters are recommended for a portion of the population [we can] …provide those as well,” she said.  

Are Boosters Necessary?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not yet said if or when boosters will be advised. But both Pfizer and Moderna believe they will be needed. During an April interview with CNBC, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla predicted people will need a booster within 12 months of being fully vaccinated. During an investor call this Wednesday, Moderna said they expected that a booster will be needed before the winter.  

But infectious disease specialists are not quite as sure.

“We don't have the data yet to know whether or when boosters are needed and should not pursue that in the absence of data,” Susan Coffin, MD, MPH, attending physician for the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Verywell.

Still, in late July, a CDC advisory committee discussed giving booster shots specifically to people who are immunocompromised. These individuals may not be able to produce enough antibodies to fight a COVID infection if they only receive the currently authorized doses. The organization has made no formal recommendation so far. And during a White House COVID-19 briefing for reporters on Thursday, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that decision is still pending. 

Some People Are Already Getting Boosters

At the recent CDC meeting about booster shots, members of the advisory committee noted that some immunocompromised patients are taking matters into their own hands and finding third shots. Social media posts indicate that even people who are not immunocompromised are seeking third shots from doctors or from pharmacies and clinics, which don’t necessarily check registries to see if a person has had previous vaccine doses.

Earlier this week during a White House reporter briefing, CDC director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged that people are seeking out boosters on their own, and that CDC plans to obtain data on some of those shots.

“We are trying hard to encourage people to report on the safety side if people have taken the initiative to get their third shot—[which is] not yet recommended—but we have the capacity and are looking at those data right now,” Walensky said. 

A spokesperson for the CDC tells Verywell that if people give the same name and address information for a booster shot as for their initial vaccine dose, the agency can often track those third doses (though the personal information is “de-identified” from the clinical data).

The spokesperson added that in addition to that data, the CDC is reviewing booster shot trials by vaccine manufacturers and research labs around the country. In June, for example, the National Institutes of Health began looking at the efficacy of giving people a booster dose different from the original vaccine they received. An institute spokesperson tells Verywell preliminary results could be available this fall.  

Ethicists and infectious disease experts say the solution to ending COVID-19 may actually lie in paying attention to WHO’s call for more vaccines for the developing world. “We’re no stronger than the weakest link. It’s a global battle,” Anandasabapathy says.

Michael K. Gusmano, PhD, a research scholar in health equity at the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, agrees.

“The Delta variant exists because there continues to be lots of [unvaccinated] hosts," Gusmano tells Verywell. "I think this is an instance where doing the just thing coincides with doing the thing that’s best for [wealthier countries] long term.” 

What This Means For You

Billions of dollars are needed to help purchase vaccines and supplies for low- and middle-income countries, with most coming from the government budgets of wealthier countries. But individuals can donate too. For example, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is distributing COVID-19 vaccines worldwide and accepting donations.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  2. Padma TV. COVID vaccines to reach poorest countries in 2023 — despite recent pledgesNature. 2021;595(7867):342-343. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-01762-w. Published July, 2021.

  3. National Institutes of Health. NIH clinical trial evaluating mixed COVID-19 vaccine schedules begins. June 1, 2021.