Global health leaders have urged the UK and other wealthy nations to adopt a worldwide approach to tackling coronavirus as they raised concerns about new and emerging variants.
Giving healthy adults in rich nations booster jabs and vaccinating children should not occur when there are millions of at-risk adults yet to receive a first dose, experts said.
On Tuesday, UK health leaders announced a booster programme would begin imminently for 30 million adults over 50 and health and care workers.
But Dr David Nabarro, World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy for Covid-19, criticised the plan to give third vaccines to millions and first jabs to children aged 12 and over.
He told Sky News: “I actually think that we should be using the scarce amounts of vaccine in the world today to make sure that everybody at risk, wherever they are, is protected – and you’re at risk if you’re a health worker, you’re at risk if you’ve got diabetes or heart disease or immune suppression.
“So why don’t we just get this vaccine to where it’s needed?
“Now, some countries giving lots of vaccine and doing boosters and giving it to some children – I find that difficult because, from my point of view, as somebody who’s responsible for world issues, I just can’t distinguish between a person in the UK or a person in Uruguay who’s at risk of the disease – I want to see the vaccine available to everybody.
“So I’m still pushing against this business of using lots of vaccine in a few countries where we’ve got a shortage, especially because this virus is constantly changing and new variants are emerging quite regularly, so we have to have a worldwide approach to it and not a country-by-country approach.”
The WHO has called for a moratorium on booster doses until the end of 2021 so vaccines can be shipped to parts of the world where many at-risk people remain unvaccinated.
It said that while third doses may be necessary for immunocompromised people, widespread booster jabs could be better put to use elsewhere.
WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing on Tuesday: “WHO’s global targets are to support every country to vaccinate at least 40% of its population by the end of this year, and 70% of the world’s population by the middle of next year.
“So far, just two countries in Africa have reached the 40% target, the lowest of any region.
“As I said last week, that’s not because African countries don’t have the capacity or experience to roll out vaccines. It’s because they have been left behind by the rest of the world.
“More than 5.7 billion doses have been administered globally, but only 2% of those have been administered in Africa.
“This leaves people at high risk of disease and death exposed to a deadly virus against which many other people around the world enjoy protection.
“This doesn’t only hurt the people of Africa, it hurts all of us. The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more the virus will keep circulating and changing, the longer the social and economic disruption will continue, and the higher the chances that more variants will emerge that render vaccines less effective.”
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has defended the rollout of booster vaccines in the UK while poorer countries lag behind.
Asked whether the booster campaign undermines global vaccine equity, the deputy chief medical officer told a Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday: “Of course, as public health people we take a very strong view that it is important that the whole world has access to vaccines, and that until everyone has access to them, none of us are fully safe.
“By the same token, the job given to us is to define what is best for the UK and that is what Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has done.
“Based on the information that my colleagues have given to me (at the end of August), nine countries have already announced that they are actively starting some form of booster campaign, and there is further intelligence that 18 others are also considering it.
“So from that perspective the UK is not alone in thinking that it will need to do this to give maximum protection to its population this winter.”