World Health Organisation urges wealthy countries to give COVID-19 boosters to poor countries to stop 'worse' variant developing

The World Health Organization (WHO) says wealthy countries should give their COVID-19 booster jabs to poor countries to stop "much worse" variants developing. 

It comes amid concern over the new Omicron variant which has been found across the globe including in South Africa, the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. It's unknown how bad the variant is or how effective vaccines will be against it. 

Speaking with The AM Show on Tuesday WHO representative Dr Margaret Harris said until there are high levels of vaccination across the world, new variants will continue to emerge and they could be more deadly. 

When asked whether countries should bring forward booster shots, like the United Kingdom is, Dr Harris said those vaccines would do more good in the hands of countries with low coverage. 

"We would prefer the boosters not be used because we actually want those boosters used in the rest of the world. The reason we are getting variants… They are developing in countries where the virus is running rampant and unchecked by immunity because so many countries have not been able to get adequate supply of vaccines," she said. 

"We want to see the vaccines going to the rest of the world and the real message is if we don't address the terrible inequity, this may just be a dress rehearsal, we may have a much worse variant come along."

Harris said countries also need to make sure everyone has had at least one dose of the vaccine before rolling out boosters. 

"The people you really want to see vaccinated are the ones who haven't had their first dose. There are still big pockets of people who are not certain they want the vaccine [or] haven't had an opportunity to get it… You need to address those things and make sure everyone is getting the full course before you even think about boosters."

In New Zealand 92 percent of the eligible population has had one jab, while 85 percent are fully vaccinated. The rollout of booster vaccines started on Monday with healthcare, border workers and kaumātua who have been fully vaccinated for six months first in line. 

"Vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19. Booster doses will be available free for anyone in New Zealand aged 18 or older who has completed their two-dose course more than six months ago," Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said. 

"We're particularly keen to make sure our healthcare and border workers – who are most at risk of coming in contact with COVID-19, and older people including kaumātua and those in residential care are aware that boosters are available from Monday, and that they're eligible if they completed their course of Pfizer more than six months ago.

"Work is already happening around the motu to ensure boosters are available in the same way your normal two shots are available – at vaccination sites, GPs and pharmacies, and on-site in aged residential care facilities (ARCs)."