Maria Van Kerkhove, Head of the World Health Organization’s Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis Division, speaks during a press conference following a meeting of the Emergency Committee on the new coronavirus in Geneva on January 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 injustice as one of the main obstacles to immunizing more people against the virus.
Around 56 countries missed the WHO’s target of immunizing 10% of their population against the virus by the end of September, officials said in a Q&A livestream on their social media channels. Improved access to vaccines would help reduce Covid deaths and hospital stays as the world nears 5 million coronavirus deaths, said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director for Covid-19.
“Not achieving this goal is heartbreaking; it’s more than heartbreaking, it’s more than frustrating, ”she said. “It’s indescribable, I have to say, because if we had used the more than 6 billion vaccines that are administered today in a different way, we would be in a very, very different situation now.”
She said the data on Covid vaccines showed very clearly that they are safe and effective in preventing hospital stays and deaths.
“They just need to be accessible to more people,” she said. “The result is people who die unnecessarily.”
Van Kerkhove’s comments echo those of U.S. health officials who have said almost all of the nationwide recorded Covid deaths were in unvaccinated patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Sept. 10 that unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from Covid, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized for their symptoms, and about 4.5 times more likely to have the virus overall get infected.
However, with vaccinations stalling in poorer countries and hospitals struggling to keep up with the more transmissible Delta variant, Van Kerkhove said vaccines should be prioritized for those most at risk and called for the continued use of masks and social distancing to help mitigate Covid outbreaks.
“You can’t both have where everything is open and everyone is living and pretending this is over while you have your intensive care units full,” said Van Kerkhove.
The WHO opposes the distribution of Covid booster doses and urges wealthier countries to distribute their supplies to developing countries in hopes of immunizing at least 40% of all countries by the end of the year. The distribution differences are particularly evident in Africa, where the organization reported on September 30 that only 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 vaccinated 2% or less of their population, while two African nations have yet to receive vaccines, the agency said.