A panel of World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday said that it supports urgent and broad access to booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines amidst Omicron spread, retracting from its earlier advice against booster shots.
In an interim statement on COVID-19 vaccines in the context of circulation of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant, the WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-CO-VAC) said that it strongly supports urgent and broad access to current COVID-19 vaccines for primary series and booster doses, particularly for groups at risk of developing severe disease, given that current COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide high levels of protection against severe disease and death.
"The near- and medium-term supply of the available vaccines has increased substantially, however, vaccine equity remains an important challenge and all efforts to address such inequities are strongly encouraged," the panel said.
As per a study published in The Lancet in November 2021, booster dose is more effective in reducing severe COVID-19-related outcomes in individuals compared to two shots received at least five months ago. Several countries including India are giving booster doses to the most vulnerable populations of their countries.
The group further said that to ensure COVID-19 vaccines provide optimal protection in the future, they may need to be updated as new, antigenically distinct variants emerge. The updated vaccines may be monovalent targeting the predominant circulating variant, or multivalent based on different variants.
WHO said it contines to monitor the global spread of Omicron, including a "stealth" version known as BA.2, which has been documented to have re-infected some people after an initial case of omicron.
"Ideally, COVID-19 vaccines will prevent infection and transmission, in addition to providing protection against severe disease and death. The development of pan SARS-CoV-2 or pansarbecovirus vaccines, as well as the development of vaccines that are able to elicit mucosal immunity, may be desirable options, but the timeframe for their development and production is uncertain," the WHO said.
The apex UN Health agency noted that current vaccines are based on the virus that circulated early in the pandemic in Wuhan, China in 2019. "Since then, there has been continuous and substantial virus evolution and it is likely that this evolution will continue, resulting in the emergence of new variants. The composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may therefore need to be updated," the WHO noted.
The group further said that COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers should generate and provide data to WHO on performance of current and variant-specific COVID-19 vaccines so that they can be considered as part of a broad decision-making framework on COVID-19 vaccine composition, allowing the TAG-CO-VAC to issue more specific advice to WHO on adjustments needed to COVID-19 vaccine strain composition.
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