WHO warns against repeated COVID-19 boosters, says too soon to treat the virus like flu
Just out: Interim Statement on COVID-19 vaccines in the context of the circulation of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 Variant from the @WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-CO-VAC) https://t.co/Na5O4rofJz
The group said there could be a need to update the existing vaccines to better target emerging COVID-19 variants, like Omicron which has spread rapidly and has been detected in 149 countries so far.
And it called for the development of new jabs that not only protect people who contract COVID-19 against falling seriously ill but also better prevent people from catching the virus in the first place.
Too soon to treat COVID-19 like flu
It comes as WHO’s Europe director Hans Kluge told a news briefing on Tuesday the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is on track to infect more than half of Europeans in the next 6-8 weeks but warned it should not yet be seen as a flu-like endemic illness.
“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6-8 weeks,” Dr Kluge said, referring to a research centre at the University of Washington in the US.
The WHO said it was too early to treat the disease as endemic – meaning a regularly occurring milder disease like the flu.
“We still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly and posing quite new challenges. So we’re certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic,” WHO senior emergencies officer Catherine Smallwood told the briefing.
“This virus, as we know, has surprised us more than once… The prime aspirational goal for 2022 is to stabilise the pandemic,” Mr Kluge said.
“COVID-19 vaccines that have high impact on prevention of infection and transmission, in addition to the prevention of severe disease and death, are needed and should be developed,” TAG-Co-VAC said.
This, it said, would help lower “community transmission and the need for stringent and broad-reaching public health and social measures.”
It also suggested that vaccine developers should strive to create jabs that “elicit immune responses that are broad, strong, and long-lasting in order to reduce the need for successive booster doses”.
A health worker administers the vaccine for COVID-19 to a woman in Ahmedabad, India. Source: AAP
According to the WHO, 331 candidate vaccines are currently being worked on around the world.
Until new vaccines have been developed, the group said, “the composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated”.
This would “ensure that (they) continue to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease by VOCs (variants of concern), including Omicron and future variants.”
Just weeks after Omicron was first detected in southern Africa, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not only far more transmissible than previous variants, but also better at dodging some vaccine protections.
The WHO has so far given its stamp of approval to versions of eight different vaccines.
TAG-Co-VAC stressed that those vaccines provide a high level of protection against severe disease and death caused by the various variants of the virus.
It said preliminary data indicated the existing vaccines were less effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 disease in people who have contracted the Omicron variant.
But protection against severe disease, which is what the jabs were especially intended to do, “is more likely to be preserved”, it said.
“However, more data on vaccine effectiveness, particularly against hospitalisation, severe disease, and death are needed, including for each vaccine platform and for various vaccine dosing and product regimens,” it said.
‘Primary vaccination’ top priority
In the meantime, TAG-Co-VAC echoed the WHO stance that “the immediate priority for the world is accelerating access to the primary vaccination”.
The UN health agency has resisted the push in a growing number of countries to roll out blanket booster programmes in the battle against new concerning variants like Omicron.
The WHO says this makes no sense as many people in poorer nations are still waiting for a first jab, dramatically increasing the chance of new, more dangerous variants emerging.
So far, more than eight billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in at least 219 territories, according to an AFP count.
But while over 67 per cent of people in high-income countries have received at least one jab, fewer than 11 percent have in low-income countries, according to UN numbers.