March 9, 2022 -- A World Health Organization advisory group said Tuesday it “strongly supports urgent and broad access” to COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, especially for people who face high risks for severe disease.
The recommendation reverses previous statements from the WHO that stressed worldwide vaccine equity for first doses over booster distribution in rich countries. On Tuesday, the WHO pulled back on its earlier statements by saying boosters were recommended once countries had enough supplies and could protect their most vulnerable citizens, according to The Associated Press.
The WHO group concluded that COVID-19 vaccines provide high levels of protection against severe disease and death as the contagious Omicron variant continues to spread around the world. Although the variant has decreased in some countries, such as the U.S., several countries in the WHO’s Western Pacific region are facing high cases and deaths.
“While global cases are declining, there are reduced testing resources and capacities in some areas,” the WHO said. “The epidemiological situation remains heterogeneous, with a number of regions and countries reporting increases in new weekly cases, while others are now reporting declines.”
The updated recommendations came from the WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition, which is made up of 18 experts who focus on how well vaccines work and variants of concern, such as the Delta and Omicron variants. The WHO said it continues to monitor the global spread of Omicron, as well as the subvariant BA.2, which has reinfected some people after they had a case of Omicron and has become the dominant lineage of Omicron in several countries.
Vaccines appear to be effective against Omicron and BA.2, the WHO said. Several studies have pointed to evidence that booster doses restore waning immunity and protect against serious COVID-19. Booster programs in countries such as the U.S., U.K., and Canada have prevented the surge in Omicron infections from leading to hospitalizations and deaths, the AP reported.
The WHO said new variants will likely emerge, and new vaccines will likely be needed since the current authorized vaccines are based on the first coronavirus strain that circulated at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Since then, there has been continuous and substantial virus evolution, and it is likely that this evolution will continue, resulting in emergence of new variants,” the WHO said. “The composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may therefore need to be updated.”