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Vaccine Rollout Remains Highly Uneven Worldwide

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Here in the United States, over half the population has now received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. But this is a global pandemic, and the global vaccine rollout is uneven. So we begin this hour of the program with NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien, who's in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearly 8 billion people in the world. And, according to Johns Hopkins, only two billion vaccine doses have been administered so far. There's a lot of need but not a lot of delivery. What's the situation there?

BEAUBIEN: So yeah, as you mentioned, I'm in Sierra Leone at the moment. Sierra Leone has gotten one shipment of vaccines through the global dose sharing program COVAX. That was three months ago, back on March 8. It was nearly 100,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. They also got a donation from China in February, but that's it. They haven't gotten anything since then. This is a country of nearly 8 million people. Currently, it's 0.1% of the population that's fully vaccinated. And the doses Sierra Leone did get - they came from the Serum Institute of India, the COVAX ones, and that has halted all exports because of the explosion of cases in India. So it's not really clear when Sierra Leone is going to get more vaccine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the situation there, which is incredibly worrying. But how typical is Sierra Leone's experience globally?

BEAUBIEN: Well, in Africa, unfortunately, it's very typical. In fact, it's the norm. Less than 1% of people in sub-Saharan Africa right now are fully vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization. Even the places that are doing relatively well on the continent - you look at, like, South Africa or Kenya - they've only gotten about 2% of their people vaccinated. And this is really quite worrying because right now South Africa is actually seeing a new surge in cases. The WHO's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, says there's been a 9% increase in reported COVID cases on the continent over the last week, and she says the continent is not ready for a significant new wave of infections.

MATSHIDISO MOETI: Many African hospitals and clinics are still far from ready for a surge in critically ill COVID-19 patients.

BEAUBIEN: And as new variants keep popping up, Moeti says she's worried that this third wave is - it's going to come.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about elsewhere in the world? Are vaccinations ramping up in some places?

BEAUBIEN: It's really mixed. Yes, there are some places where vaccinations are being rolled out much more aggressively than others. Malaysia, for instance, is getting ready for a mass vaccination campaign. Vaccinations are increasing in many places, but the limiting factor is a lack of vaccines right now. Many countries are expecting shipments later in this year or early in 2022, and that doesn't help if cases are rising and, you know, people are dying at the moment. If you look at Peru, for instance, they just revised their COVID death toll to nearly 200,000, and that's giving it one of the highest COVID mortality rates in the world, yet Peru has been battling really bad outbreaks for months on end and they only have 4% of their country fully vaccinated. You look around Latin America. With few exceptions, it's 10% or less of the population that's immunized, and that's actually much better than Southeast Asia. India, it's still just over 3%, you know, despite these efforts to get more vaccine out there and deal with the crisis there. And in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, you're looking at immunization rates that are less than 2%.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this is all important, of course, because this is a global pandemic. And yes, while we might be doing well here in the United States, if people don't get vaccinated in other countries, that could affect the global recovery.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess the big question then is, how long is it going to take for some of these countries to get the vaccines they need?

BEAUBIEN: Unfortunately, we're hearing that it literally could be years. There was a report that just came out of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation here saying that it could be 2024 before some of the poorest countries in Africa have a significant portion of their people vaccinated. Things are improving in terms of vaccine availability. You know, the U.S. and other wealthier nations have started to donate any excess vaccine doses that they have to COVAX. You've also got some new vaccines coming online. There's two Chinese vaccines that just won authorization from the World Health Organization. You know, that should help a bit. Russia is ramping up production of its Sputnik vaccine, even though it hasn't managed to get regulatory approval from the European Medicines Agency or the WHO. But those doses are flowing out there.

And the big issue remains, however, how long is the global vaccination going to take? And the world is splitting into countries with high vaccination rates where people are able to do things normally, and then there's places where people are not vaccinated and they're still dealing with lockdowns, travel restrictions are in place, some borders are closed. This disparity in access to vaccines - it's really amplifying and exacerbating the divide between rich and not so rich nations around the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jason, thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.