Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the World Health Organization’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, speaks during a press conference following an emergency committee meeting over the new coronavirus in Geneva on Jan. 22, 2020.
Pierre Albouy | AFP | Getty Images
A World Health Organization official said Tuesday that unvaccinated people are “dying unnecessarily” from Covid-19, citing global vaccine inequities as one of the main obstacles to immunizing more people against the virus.
Some 56 countries fell short of the WHO’s goal of getting 10% of their populations immunized against the virus by the end of September, officials said in a Q&A livestreamed on its social media channels. Increasing access to vaccines would help reduce Covid deaths and hospitalizations as the world approaches 5 million coronavirus fatalities, said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19.
“Not meeting that target is heartbreaking; it’s more than heartbreaking, it’s more than frustrating,” she said. “It’s beyond words, I have to say, because if we had used the more than 6 billion vaccines that have been administered today differently, we would be in a very, very different situation right now.”
She said the data on Covid vaccines shows very clearly that they are safe and effective at preventing hospitalizations and death.
“They just need to be accessible” to more people, she said. “The result of this are people who are dying unnecessarily.”
Van Kerkhove’s comments echo those of U.S. health officials who have said that almost all Covid deaths recorded nationwide have been among unvaccinated patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Sept. 10 that unvaccinated people are 11 times likelier to die from Covid, 10 times likelier to require hospitalization for their symptoms and roughly 4.5 times likelier to contract the virus overall.
But with inoculations stalling in poorer nations and hospitals struggling to keep up with the more transmissible delta variant, Van Kerkhove said vaccines should be prioritized for those most vulnerable, and she called for the continued use of masks and social distancing to mitigate against Covid outbreaks.
“You can’t have it both ways, where you have everything opened up and you have everybody living and pretending that this is over while you have your ICUs full,” Van Kerkhove said.
The WHO opposes the distribution of Covid booster doses, urging wealthier countries to distribute their supplies to developing nations in hopes of immunizing at least 40% of every country by the end of the year. The disparities in distribution are particularly evident in Africa, where the organization reported on Sept. 30 that just 15 of the continent’s 54 nations have vaccinated 10% or more of their population.
More than two dozen countries on the continent have fully immunized 2% or less of their populations, while two African nations have yet to receive any vaccines, the agency said.