Vaccine boosters for coronavirus unlikely, says WHO expert

‘Immune response will be longer lived so hopefully we are not going to need boosters every year’

The human immune response to Covid-19 is looking sufficiently strong to rule out the need for regular vaccine boosters but it now appears unlikely the virus will ever be eradicated, according to the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan had a positive outlook on the pandemic, particularly with vaccines, but she told an Irish online seminar said their use must be applied equally in order to bring about success in combating the virus.

“There are still a lot of things we don’t know about this virus. On the immune system I think there’s good news: it looks like we mount a good immune response both to natural infection and to the vaccine,” she told an online forum hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs on Friday.

“We believe that this immune response will be longer lived so hopefully we are not going to need boosters every year. Can we eradicate this virus? At this point I don’t think so; it’s going to be difficult because it’s everywhere and it’s also shown that it can move between animals and humans.”


Dr Swaminathan said the best case scenario was to render Covid-19 a manageable respiratory infection, comparable to influenza or other respiratory viruses from which most people recover and only some get ill. That will be assisted, she said, by the development of much more effective vaccines than are available for influenza, as well as diagnostics and treatments. Research is also progressing in anti-viral development.

However, she painted a grim picture of the global situation as concern mounts around the Delta variant. She said that while there had been a reduction in cases and deaths of late, the last seven days’ increasing trends have become “very worrying”.

In Africa, where cases have been relatively low during the pandemic, cases have risen 19 per cent and deaths 20 per cent in the last week.

“This is a very worrying trend and potentially it’s because of the Delta variant.”

Just five countries in the world have yet to begin a vaccination programme but Dr Swaminathan warned against inequity and the potential emergence of “two diverging worlds”. High income countries are administering 74 doses per 100 people compared to just one dose in very low income countries.

“There is a huge and widening inequity here,” she said.

The pandemic’s capacity to distract healthcare from other issues was also of concern and the WHO is now concerned about the effects on vaccination programmes targeting measles and other illnesses.

“This is putting millions of people especially children at risk. Measles is something we are really worried about because measles outbreaks, we know, can really be devastating.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times