Science uncertain about need for vaccine boosters, WHO says

Mike Ryan likens giving extra doses to second life jackets for some while others drown

Giving Covid-19 booster shots to people already fully vaccinated against the disease is like handing out extra life jackets to some while leaving others to drown, a global health leader has said.

Dr Mike Ryan, the Irish-born executive director of the World Health Organisation’s emergency programme, said millions of people were being left without any protection against the disease while wealthy countries were preparing to hand out third doses.

He said the “science is not certain” on any potential benefit of third doses, while the organisation’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan said the “right thing to do” was to wait for the evidence to determine who might need boosters.

Vulnerable people

The provision of Covid-19 booster shots to vulnerable people, healthcare workers and some older people has been recommended by Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, and they are likely to be administered alongside the flu vaccine this winter. The Government is awaiting final advice on the matter from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.


The US has announced a plan to start giving third doses next month and the UK government is awaiting advice from its joint committee on vaccination and immunisation on the need for booster doses, but health secretary Sajid Javid has said he anticipates a programme beginning in early September.

Dr Ryan said more data needed to be collected on the matter but that “the reality is right now today, if we think about this in terms of an analogy, we’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we’re leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.

Billion doses

“But the fundamental ethical reality is we’re handing out second life jackets while leaving millions and millions of people without anything to protect them,” he added.

Dr Swaminathan said “close to a billion doses” would be needed if all high-income countries were to give booster doses to all of their citizens aged over 50.

There was a distinction to be made about people who are immunocompromised needing a third dose, she noted, but she said this was a small number of people who “should be protected”.

Of the idea of everyone in high-income countries getting a booster jab, she said: “This is an impossible situation and I’m afraid this will only lead to more variants, to more escape variants, and perhaps we are heading into even more dire situations.” – PA