EXCLUSIVE WHO estimates COVID-19 reminders needed every year for the most vulnerable

A logo is pictured outside a World Health Organization (WHO) building during a board meeting on the update on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Geneva, Switzerland, April 6, 2021. REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

  • In the indicative basic case 12 billion doses produced in 2022
  • General population will need booster every two years – WHO document
  • Global production varies between 6 billion and 16 billion doses
  • In the worst case, annual reminders for everyone

BRUSSELS, June 24 (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that those most vulnerable to COVID-19, such as the elderly, will need to receive an annual vaccine booster to be protected against the variants, a internal document viewed by Reuters shows.

The estimate is included in a report, which is to be discussed Thursday at a board meeting of Gavi, a vaccine alliance that co-leads WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine program COVAX. The forecast is subject to change and is also associated with two other less likely scenarios.

Vaccine makers Moderna Inc (MRNA.O) and Pfizer Inc (PFE.N), along with its German partner BioNTech (22UAy.DE), have expressed their view that the world will soon need boosters to maintain levels high levels of immunity, but the evidence for this is still unclear. Read more

The document shows that WHO considers annual boosters for high-risk people as its “indicative” baseline scenario, and boosters every two years for the general population.

It does not say how these conclusions were drawn, but shows that in the base scenario, new variants would continue to emerge and vaccines would be regularly updated to deal with these threats.

The UN agency declined to comment on the contents of the internal document.

A spokesperson for Gavi said COVAX plans to consider a wide range of scenarios.

The document, which is dated June 8 and is still a “work in progress,” also predicts in the base case that 12 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be produced worldwide next year.

This would be slightly higher than the forecast of 11 billion doses for this year cited by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), signaling that the United Nations agency does not expect a significant increase in the production of vaccines in 2022.

The document predicts manufacturing issues, regulatory approval issues and a “shift away from certain technology platforms” as potential supply bottlenecks next year.

It doesn’t say what technologies might be phased out, but the European Union, which has reserved the world’s largest volume of COVID-19 vaccines, has put a lot of emphasis on injections using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, such as those of Pfizer and Moderna, and has waived certain purchases of viral vector vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc (AZN.L) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N). Read more

WORST SCENARIO

The scenarios will be used to define WHO’s global immunization strategy and forecasts may change as new data emerges on the role of boosters and the duration of vaccine protection, Gavi says in another document, also viewed by Reuters.

So far, around 2.5 billion doses have been administered worldwide, mostly in rich countries where more than half of the population has received at least one dose, while in many poor countries less than 1 % was vaccinated, according to Gavi estimates.

See graphic: Global COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access/

This gap could widen next year according to the WHO’s most pessimistic forecasts, as the need for annual boosters could push poorer countries to the bottom of the queue again.

In the worst-case scenario, the United Nations agency says production would be 6 billion doses next year, due to strict regulations for new injections and manufacturing issues with existing ones.

This could be compounded by the need for annual boosters for the entire world, not just the most vulnerable, to combat variants and a limited duration of protection.

In a more optimistic situation, all vaccines in preparation would be licensed and production capacity would increase to around 16 billion doses to meet demand. Vaccines would also be shared fairly across the world.

There would be no need for boosters as the vaccines would show high efficacy against the variants and long protection.

Report by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Joséphine Mason and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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