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Low Global Vaccination Rate Sparks Fears Of COVID-19 Surges

May 4, 2021
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The pace of vaccinations in the U.S. is slowing, but a lot of that is about people choosing not to get the vaccine. We are not lacking doses. Many countries, though, are. And with us now to explain are three NPR correspondents - Jason Beaubien, who covers global health, Phil Reeves, who is based in South America, and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Good morning, guys.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Jason, let's start with you. It is a big world out there. Which countries or regions are getting your attention, for better or worse?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, just to start with Africa, if you look at the continent as a whole, less than 1% have gotten even one dose of a vaccine, you know, and most of those vaccinations have occurred in just a few countries. Morocco has done pretty well. It's gotten about 14% of its population at least started with vaccination. But when you look at the big picture, big population centers like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, it's minuscule. It's less than 1% are vaccinated right now.

KING: Big population centers are a real thing because the virus spreads through them quickly. I know that you've also been looking at the Philippines and Indonesia, both with sizable populations. How are vaccinations going there?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, and it's not good there either. The Philippines, it's at 1 1/2%. Indonesia is just under 5%. You know, when you look at this, it could be well into 2022 before many of these countries are able to get even a small portion, never mind a significant portion, of their populations vaccinated.

KING: Isn't the World Health Organization working to make sure this gets better? Shouldn't this be better?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. And, look, they are trying. They've got a program. It's called COVAX. It's this alliance. It's led by the WHO. One hundred eighty countries have signed up. And the idea is that COVAX would buy in bulk and then equitably distribute doses around the globe both to rich and poor countries. You know, the goal of COVAX was to make sure that every country could get at least 20% of its populations vaccinated this year. But right now, it simply can't get its hands on the vast volumes of vaccines it needs to do that.

KING: Why not?

BEAUBIEN: You know, COVAX is competing with every other country for a limited amount of vaccine that's being produced right now. You know, they've got contracts for large deliveries later in 2021. But that doesn't do much good right now. And now with the crisis in India, that's also having an effect because India is home to the vaccine manufacture the Serum Institute of India. It was one of the largest suppliers to COVAX. But now it's producing - you know, all of this production is being redirected to this domestic disaster in India. So, in fact, Serum didn't deliver any of its scheduled orders to COVAX in March or April. And some of those deliveries were to countries, you know, who need to distribute a second dose of vaccines that they already started with the first. So this has really been a major blow to the program, at least in the short term.

KING: All right. Thanks, Jason. Phil, I want to ask you about what's going on in Brazil. You're based in Rio. The number of registered COVID deaths in that country is over 400,000. This is a very severe outbreak. Is there any sign that vaccines there are helping bring down the number of cases and deaths?

REEVES: Well, the numbers have dipped somewhat in recent days, but this is thought to have more to do with curfews and other restrictions that governors and mayors have been introducing, particularly over Easter. And the numbers are still pretty high. I mean, health services here remain under a lot of pressure. The vaccines do seem to be changing patient demographics a bit. Very few old people are dying or I should say fewer old people are dying because they've been vaccinated. More younger people who haven't been yet are winding up in IC. Now, Brazil started vaccinating in January. We are now in May, yet only 10% of Brazilians are fully vaccinated. If you add to that the fact that cities are beginning to open up again and a lot of people here, including the president, decline to socially distance, it does seem likely that the situation is going to get worse again and we aren't going to see a positive effect from vaccines for some time.

KING: The vaccination numbers are really low. Why is it taking so long?

REEVES: Well, Brazil doesn't have enough vaccines. Until now, the most widely used one here has been CoronaVac from China. There have been delays in getting supplies from there. The Health Ministry decided to use its stocks to give as many people here as possible a first dose of that. And that meant that there wasn't enough for the second dose. So a lot of people here haven't been able to get that second dose, which is crucial because the first dose not give you much protection. Here in Rio, the authorities suspended the second dose CoronaVac vaccinations at the weekend. They ran out. And that's happened in quite a few other cities recently. But the roots of this problem, you know, go back further. They go back to last year. Back then, the president, Jair Bolsonaro, was dismissive of vaccines. He stopped his health ministry buying CoronaVac at one point. He quibbled with Pfizer over liability issues. He's changed his position on that, just done a deal, actually, with Pfizer to get in a lot of doses. And his government's saying that it will have enough vaccines to vaccinate everybody by the year's end. But medical specialists say that should have all been done a lot earlier.

KING: And just really quickly, what about Brazil's neighbors on the continent?

REEVES: Well, Chile stands out. I mean, its vaccination program is way ahead of the rest of the region. It's up there with the U.S. and Israel. More than a third of the population is fully vaccinated. But that didn't stop a huge surge in cases recently that's so severe that the government had to order a fresh batch of lockdowns. Numbers have begun to drop recently, but it shows you that even with an awful lot of people vaccinated, you know, this problem is going to go on for a long time before these vaccines start to really make a big impact and change the picture.

KING: All right. Thanks, Phil. Anthony Kuhn, let me ask you about Asia. You've got wealthy countries like Japan and South Korea also having problems with vaccinations. What's going on?

KUHN: Well, both South Korea and Japan were considered to have managed the early stages of the pandemic well. And for that reason, they've been able to keep case numbers and deaths fairly low compared to the U.S. But now their vaccine rollouts have been among the slowest of developed economies. And neither of these countries has fully vaccinated 1% of their populations. And there's a lot of skepticism in both countries about whether they will be able to reach herd immunity within this year. Both Japan and South Korea are dependent on imported vaccines, and critics say that their governments were off the pace by several months in entering into vaccine purchasing agreements, partially because case numbers were low and things didn't seem so urgent. And so now both countries find themselves struggling with fourth waves of infections and as in other countries. Citizens are exhausted by states of emergency and social distancing, and these measures are just becoming less and less effective.

KING: So how are those two countries plotting the way forward?

KUHN: Well, they've got to speed things up, and they are taking some measures. But both countries do show that a majority of citizens do plan to get vaccinated, but both of their governments need to do more to convince citizens that it's the right thing to do. And that's especially true in Japan, which has had a recent history of vaccine scares.

KING: OK. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, Phil Reeves in Rio and Jason Beaubien, who covers global health, thanks to all of you. We appreciate it.

KUHN: Thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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