Booster shots exacerbate global vaccine inequity

At the end of last week’s post on booster shots, I wrote that these additional doses take up airtime in expert discussions and in the media, distracting from discussions of what it will take to vaccinate the world.

But these shots do more harm than just taking over the media cycle. When the U.S. and other wealthy nations decide to give many residents third doses, they jump the vaccine supply line again—leaving low-income nations to wait even longer for first doses.

I explained how this process works in a new article for Popular Science. Essentially, the big vaccine manufacturers (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, etc.) have created artificial scarcity of vaccine doses, by insisting on controlling every single dose of their products—rather than sharing the vaccine technology with other manufacturers around the world.

Then, out of this limited supply of doses, the big companies sell to wealthy nations first. The wealthy nations are “easier markets to service,” WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told me, since they can pay more money and have logistical systems in place already to deliver the vaccine doses.

If a wealthy nation wants boosters, it’s in the vaccine companies’ best interests to sell them boosters—before sending primary series doses to other parts of the world. Or, as South Africa-based vaccine advocate Fatima Hassan put it: “Supplies that are currently available are diverted” for boosters. “Just to serve preferred customers in the richer North.”

The FDA and CDC authorized booster shots for Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and mix-and-match regimens this week. Advisory committee discussions did not mention that, worldwide, three in five healthcare workers are not fully vaccinated.

More international data

  • China’s not the only country with unreliable COVID-19 data
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  • Data implications of China ending its zero-COVID policies
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  • How testing international travelers helps the CDC keep tabs on new variants
    Last month, the CDC started publishing data from a surveillance program focused on international travelers coming into the U.S. I talked to bioinformatics experts involved with the program to learn more about how it works.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has COVID-19 impacts
    When Russian troops began attacking Ukraine, the country was just recovering from its worst COVID-19 surge of the pandemic. To state the terrifying obvious: war makes it much harder to control a pandemic.
  • We failed to vaccinate the world in 2021; will 2022 be more successful?
    In January, COVAX set a goal that many global health advocates considered modest: delivering 2.3 billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021. is saying it’ll deliver just 800 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021, according to the Washington Post, and only about 600 million had been delivered by early December.

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