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Poor Nations Left Behind In Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United States has now fully vaccinated more than 1 of 5 residents against COVID-19, but the distribution of coronavirus vaccine is a different story elsewhere in the world. The entire continent of Africa, for example, has received just 2% of the world's vaccine doses so far. Some countries are bracing to wait months or even years before they have enough supply to fully vaccinate their populations. Here to discuss is senior vaccine policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders, Kate Elder.

Kate Elder, welcome to the show.

KATE ELDER: Hi, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Can you paint us a global picture of how the vaccine rollout is going in poorer countries?

ELDER: It's pretty devastating, I think. While we here in the U.S. are very optimistic about when we'll achieve this thing called herd immunity, many of my colleagues working at Doctors Without Borders in developing countries are only just starting to see some vaccines - small volumes - arrive in countries where even the most vulnerable people - frontline health care workers - haven't yet been able to be vaccinated. In high-income countries like the United States, almost 1 in 4 people has been vaccinated. In low-income countries, places where Medecins Sans Frontieres working, it's 1 in more than 500 people who has been vaccinated. The global mechanism that's supposed to deliver equity of vaccination called COVAX was expecting at this point to have distributed about a hundred million doses by the end of March. But to date, it's only been able to distribute about 38 million doses.

KELLY: What is the holdup, as best as you can put your finger on it?

ELDER: There's really just a scarcity of doses. If we had decided to adhere to what the World Health Organization has recommended, which is that frontline health care workers and other most vulnerable people should be vaccinated first, regardless of where they live, we would have distributed these vaccines very differently. But what happened is that there was just a run on vaccines even before they were tangible, even when there was just the promise of vaccines. And high-income countries really gobbled up the tremendous volume of the world's supply. And that's just left COVAX and other initiatives that are trying to deliver vaccines to developing countries, you know, really, unfortunately, with their hand out.

KELLY: Let me play devil's advocate for a minute. Some would argue, look, this may not be fair, but it's rich countries that funded the vaccines, that developed the vaccines. They have the right to first pick.

ELDER: I understand. And we did put a tremendous amount of public funding into the development of these vaccines, but it's not an either/or. And at the same time as well, just thinking from a public health perspective, although we might be protecting ourselves at quite a rapid rate here in the U.S., it's actually not at the end of the day in our self-interest. We shouldn't rest on our laurels once we, you know, achieve herd immunity in the United States. We're still just as susceptible to the variants as well. So it's really in our collective best interest to make sure that everybody around the world is protected.

KELLY: So what should the U.S. do now, in your view, to try to get more vaccines to less wealthy countries?

ELDER: I think there are two things. One is urgently, the U.S. government has to allocate some of our supply to COVAX. We're estimating that by July, there will be a surplus of almost up to half a billion doses in the United States. In tandem with that, if the U.S. government could use its pressure to push companies like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson to share that technology with other competent manufacturers that can be producing around the world, it wouldn't be an either/or. We would have more vaccine for everybody.

KELLY: Kate Elder - she is senior vaccine policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders.

Thank you for speaking with us.

ELDER: Thanks so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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