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Nurith Aizenman

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What went wrong?

At year's end, that's the question being asked about the global effort to make sure that all countries get vaccines against COVID-19.

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The discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus — which has a high number of concerning mutations — has kicked off a frenzy of research. Scientists are racing to figure out how transmissible this variant is and how resistant to vaccines it is.

They're also grappling with a mystery: How did omicron get created?

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There have now been more than 250 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. That's according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. This milestone comes as wealthy countries have fully vaccinated about 65% of their populations. Yet in low-income countries fewer than 3% of people have been vaccinated.

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Fans of the television series The Great British Bake Off have long marveled at the skill contestants show during the dreaded "technical challenge" — for which they are given a basket with all the ingredients needed to make a highly unusual dish but a set of instructions that are often as vague as, "Bake until ready." Now a team of scientists at a pharmaceutical startup in South Africa is essentially confronting the same type of test — except the stakes are life and death.

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Eleven days ago, Dr. Akbari was at her clinic in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif when she got a call that made her drop everything. It was a member of the Taliban who had been threatening her from afar for months because she had given a birth control shot to his 13-year-old bride.

"This time, his voice was actually really soft," recalls Akbari. "He said, 'We're entering the city. Soon we'll come and get you.' "

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Since 2015, NPR has been following the efforts of a charity in Northern India that has an interesting solution to the problem of child marriage. It's called the Veerni Institute and it offers village girls who are child brides — or who are at risk of being married off young — the chance to continue their high school education. The institute runs what is effectively a boarding school for these girls in the city of Jodhpur.

When it comes to COVID-19 in Africa, there were mixed signals from Africa on Thursday.

The World Health Organization reports that after eight consecutive weeks of surging cases across the continent, there's finally been a reversal. The total number of confirmed new cases in Africa fell by 1.7% to nearly 282,000 in the past week. And it's worth noting that this represents only 8% of new cases worldwide.

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For the seventh week in a row, COVID-19 cases have been rising across Africa at an explosive rate. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports on what's driving this wave.

There's mounting research to suggest that protecting people who are immuno-compromised from getting COVID is important not just for their sake – it could be critical in the effort to end the pandemic for everyone.

The evidence comes from two separate strands of studies.

Dr. Laura McCoy has been doing the first type. She's an infectious disease researcher at University College London.

"The group of people that I'm particularly interested in are those living with HIV," she says.

When COVID-19 cases surged in Malawi in January, Alinafe Kasiya's family was hit hard. The disease killed his sister — a healthy, gregarious woman who was the heart and soul of their clan — just before her 44th birthday. Then another sister who had cared for the first came down with symptoms. Then Kasiya's 13-year-son got sick while at boarding school. Kasiya wasn't even allowed to visit the boy while he recovered.

"It was a nightmare. The whole situation was a nightmare," he says.

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It seems incredible: At a time when low-income nations are clamoring for vaccines against COVID-19, at least three countries — Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and South Sudan — are either discarding doses or giving them to other countries. What's going on?

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Editor's note: As noted in this article, research is ongoing into the efficacy of various vaccines against the different variants. This piece reflects the state of knowledge as of its publication date, Friday, April 9.

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Editor's note: This is the latest update of a story that NPR has run on several occasions after mass shooting events in the United States. It was last published on Aug. 5, 2019.

The horrific mass shooting events in Indianapolis, the Atlanta area and Boulder, Colo., this year have once again shone a spotlight on how frequent this type of violence is in the United States compared with other wealthy countries.

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