Moratorium on Boosters: a Worldwide Debate
Vaccination rate worldwide as of November 18, 2021
With the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots, an end to the pandemic in the near future is plausible. However, vaccination rates in wealthy and poor countries are drastically different. According to The New York Times, only 0.1% of the population of Congo have received a COVID-19 vaccine, and a mere 0.6% of people living in South Sudan are fully vaccinated. In contrast, over 99% of eligible people living in the United Arab Emirates have gotten at least one shot and 77% of Cubans are fully vaccinated. Due to this great imbalance, on August 4, 2021, the World Health Organization called for a moratorium on administering COVID-19 booster shots until the end of September to give lower income countries a chance to catch up on vaccinations. Soon after this statement was released, Tedros Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, urged world leaders to hold off on boosters until the beginning of 2022. Ghebreyesus’s announcement has sparked an important moral question: should wealthier countries give their vaccine supply to poorer countries in order to help bridge the vaccination gap? Or should wealthier nations put their own country’s safety first before assisting other countries?
If high-income countries keep their shots to themselves, the pandemic has little hope of ending. COVID-19 is affecting the whole world and will continue to do so until more people are protected against the virus. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Realistically, with all of the international travel that occurs every day, the virus has the ability to spread exponentially from a place with low vaccination rates to a place with higher rates. Additionally, the more people who don’t get at least one vaccine, the greater the chance is that the virus will mutate, potentially making our current vaccines useless. As such, it doesn’t matter if one country has a 99% vaccination rate if another country hasn’t even passed 10%. In addition, it isn’t ethical to let people in one place die without a possibility of getting a vaccine, while citizens somewhere else have the luxury of getting fully vaccinated. Some have argued that countries should be helping those who need the vaccines the most. In this case, the people of low-income countries have a much greater need for the shots than citizens elsewhere. Finally, although the COVID-19 booster shot is effective in decreasing the chance of serious illness, its benefits are much smaller than that of the first two doses. Therefore, the shots would have a greater impact when administered as first and second doses instead of boosters.
On the other hand, a government’s first priority should be its citizens. After all, whenever you’re going on a flight, you are told to secure your oxygen mask before assisting someone else in the event of an emergency. The same can be said for the booster shots: countries must first protect their people before giving away their supply. More vaccination in any given country would mean a greater chance of going back to normal within that area. In addition, administering the boosters instead of giving them away would help protect those who are immuno-compromised, older, or work in a high-risk setting. Boosters also have the potential to increase the immunity in people who got their first two shots more than six months ago, due to the waning immunity that comes after getting the vaccines some time ago. Another argument to keep the shots is money. If high-income countries were to donate their vaccines to lower income countries, somebody still has to pay for them, and the responsibility would fall on the richer nations. Is it really fair to give away the money intended for a country’s citizens to people living on the other side of the world?
At the end of the day, the correct answer may be neither giving the shots away nor keeping them for boosters but rather somewhere in between: a balance between protecting the country’s citizens and helping close the vaccine gap. If all of the well-off countries gave away some of their shots to low income countries, the resulting number of vaccines would be enough to greatly help those countries. At the same time, keeping some of the shots to administer as boosters would ensure that the citizens of high-income countries are protected against the virus as well.