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With COVID-19 vaccine targets missed, WHO sets sights on highest risk

New focus reflects global vaccine divides.

Louise O'Brien/TNH

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After much of the world missed targets to vaccinate 70 percent of the population against COVID-19 by July, the World Health Organization’s new strategy prioritises health workers and older people.

The WHO’s updated strategy preserves the 70 percent vaccination target the agency once called “crucial”, but places stronger emphasis on recommendations for countries to vaccinate all of their health workers and people older than 60. The new strategy, released on 22 July, acknowledges that countries will still need to set their own targets for national vaccination programmes.

The language walks back previous WHO statements about achieving 70 percent vaccine coverage in each country by mid-2022 – a target that was clearly missed. By mid-year, only 58 countries had reached 70 percent of their population. Now, the goal is described as “aspirational”, without any new date set for when it might be achieved.  

The WHO warned that many people who are most at risk remain unprotected despite the biggest and fastest global vaccination rollout in history. More than 12 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally, resulting in countries reaching about 60 percent of their populations, on average. 

“Even where 70-percent vaccination coverage is achieved, if significant numbers of health workers, older people and other at-risk groups remain unvaccinated, deaths will continue, health systems will remain under pressure and the global recovery will be at risk,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in announcing the new strategy. 

There are huge global disparities: In low-income countries, only 28 percent of older people and 37 percent of healthcare workers have received a primary course of vaccines, and most have not received booster doses, the WHO said. For the general population, only 16 percent of eligible adults in low-income countries, and 21 percent in African nations, have completed a two-course dose, according to Oxford University’s “Our World in Data” vaccine tracker.

With clear inequities in global vaccine coverage, analysts have previously warned that wider targets of 70 percent coverage must be re-examined to focus on people at greatest risk.

Even as the WHO tweaks its targets, health officials are renewing calls to distribute resources fairly – for in-the-pipeline vaccines adapted to COVID-19 variants, and for new health emergencies.

On 23 July, the WHO declared the monkeypox outbreak a global public health emergency – the first such declaration since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, vaccines and antiviral treatments for monkeypox are only available in about half of the countries that are seeing cases, a WHO official said.

This article was adapted from reporting published by Health Policy Watch

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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