MSF: US government, pharma shouldn't administer COVID-19 booster shots before most vulnerable people are protected

Lebanon - COVID-19 Vaccination

Lebanon 2021 © Mohamad Cheblak/MSF

As pharmaceutical corporations lobby wealthy governments like the US to authorize booster shots, billions of vulnerable people and health care workers worldwide wait for their first doses

NEW YORK/GENEVA, JULY 22, 2021—The US government and pharmaceutical corporations should not be planning to administer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots anywhere before all health care workers and vulnerable people globally have access to vaccination, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today. As only 1 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines—and as there is no consensus yet among scientists and experts that boosters are needed imminently—it would be unconscionable to offer people already fully vaccinated another dose before protecting people who haven’t been vaccinated at all, said MSF.

“Leaders of governments like the US, which has already vaccinated well beyond the most vulnerable people, need to stop and take a look at this dramatic global imbalance in access to vaccines before offering boosters to vaccinated people,” said Dr. Carrie Teicher, director of programs at MSF-USA. “We cannot let pharmaceutical corporations prematurely dictate the need for boosters in the absence of conclusive data and evidence. We need to be moving mountains now to make sure available doses go to protect health care workers and vulnerable people in low- and middle-income countries who remain at grave risk of catching and dying from COVID-19.”

There is a desperate need for COVID-19 vaccine doses in low- and middle-income countries, and the COVAX Facility—the global initiative that aims to deliver COVID-19 vaccines based on public health needs—is struggling to get enough doses to even reach a fraction of its stated vaccination goals. At the same time, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have already entered talks with high-income countries with high rates of vaccination, in particular the European Union, to place orders for third doses of the vaccines they produce. With so many people struggling to access even a single dose, this move represents sheer profiteering on the part of pharmaceutical corporations.

“Wealthy governments shouldn’t be prioritizing giving third doses when much of the developing world hasn’t even yet had the chance to get their first COVID-19 shots,” said Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign. “We’re in this devastating place of vaccine inequity precisely because pharmaceutical corporations prioritized profits over lives, and the countries where these companies are primarily based decided to pursue a ‘me first’ approach. Rich governments need to urgently redistribute those doses to the rest of the world. The longer billions of people remain unvaccinated, the more variants will develop that threaten all of us. This profit-driven and self-centered approach is not only morally questionable, but shortsighted.”

Pfizer-BioNTech has allocated only 11 percent of their vaccine deliveries to date to low- and middle-income countries directly or through COVAX, and Moderna has allocated only 0.3 percent, according to MSF calculations based on AirFinity data from July 15. Meanwhile, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna estimate they will earn $26 billion and $19.2 billion, respectively, in sales from the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. The World Health Organization (WHO) Director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, last week called out pharmaceutical greed in a direct message to Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, asking the companies to focus on redistributing doses to COVAX rather than pushing for the doses to be used as booster shots. As COVID-19 deaths in Africa surge with a 43 percent week-on-week rise—and with only 1.5 percent of Africa’s population fully vaccinated compared to more than 50 percent of people in some high-income countries—dose redistribution is critical to begin turning the tide against COVID-19 in countries in Africa and beyond.

“In places where we work, such as Brazil, South Africa, and Uganda, health care workers and people most vulnerable to COVID-19 are still a far cry from being protected, much less other groups in these countries who are also at risk,” said Dr. Teicher. “The longer people everywhere remain completely unvaccinated, the more chances there will be for new variants to take hold and set back the global response.”

To end this pandemic as quickly as possible, MSF is calling on Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to share mRNA vaccine technology and know-how with producers in low- and middle-income countries so more vaccines can be made in more places across the world—and for the US government to put pressure on these corporations to do so. Additionally, governments like the US that have already reached their vulnerable people with vaccination must stop purchasing additional doses and instead make those doses available to WHO and COVAX for equitable global distribution. Lastly, the US must remain committed to supporting the “TRIPS Waiver” proposal to suspend monopolies on all COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic.

"As one of the world's major purchasers of COVID-19 vaccines, the US government's next steps on boosters and redistribution of its vaccines will be immensely consequential to whether we can finally end this pandemic," Dr. Teicher said. "The US can either cater to the pharmaceutical industry or help vaccinate the world. If the US is truly committed to ending this pandemic for everyone, everywhere, they must urgently reallocate their surplus vaccine doses to COVAX and tell Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—which received significant US funding—to share the information other manufacturers need to help scale up mRNA vaccine supply all over the world."