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The Importance Of Global Vaccine Equity


What was once scarce will soon be abundant, at least for those living in wealthy countries. We're talking, of course, about coronavirus vaccines. While President Biden has promised that there will be enough for every American adult by the end of May, most nations around the globe don't even have enough to inoculate their frontline health care workers, much less all their citizens. Tom Bollyky is director of the Global Health program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he joins us now. It's good to have you back.

TOM BOLLYKY: It's great to be back. Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First, some news - the U.S. agreed to send millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not been approved for use in the United States, to Mexico and Canada as a loan. It would need to be repaid in doses in the future, right? What's your reaction to that?

BOLLYKY: It's a positive step. Ultimately, particularly in Mexico, there's a high burden of coronavirus cases, and they are lacking anywhere near the vaccine supplies they need to respond. The U.S. has been slow to donate doses. The loan allows them to give supplies to Mexico and Canada now. If we don't need them later, that loan doesn't need to be repaid. If we do, then that can be worked out at a later date.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You spoke to the House foreign relations committee last week, and you noted that 80 countries have yet to administer a single dose. That represents 1.2 billion people - a glaring inequality but also a real issue when it comes to effectively fighting this virus.

BOLLYKY: That's correct. There have been approximately 400 million doses of vaccines administered globally, but just 10 nations are responsible for 3 out of every 4 doses. And what that means is that it extends the pandemic globally. So even if we manage to vaccinate our own population in the U.S., if the pandemic is still raging abroad, it leaves us at risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But isn't it also true that the United States had one of the worst outbreaks in the world, and so controlling it here could also protect the world?

BOLLYKY: You're right. The U.S. is not the biggest offender. We've used 28% of the world's doses that have been administered so far, but we also have 28% of the world's cases. It's actually countries like Australia, Israel, New Zealand that have managed to get this pandemic under control - they're using a significant amount of doses at a time when they're needed in countries where the pandemic is raging.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: G-7 nations have pledged to donate billions of dollars to COVAX - that's the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access program - which will distribute vaccines around the globe. Is it enough?

BOLLYKY: It's not enough. COVAX is intended to administer 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of the year, but we're four months into this global vaccine rollout, and COVAX has distributed only 29 million vaccine doses. So they have a long way to go. Right now, what we've seen is wealthy democracies are donating cash, while autocracies, nations like China and Russia, are donating doses. And ultimately, in the midst of a global crisis where countries are under tremendous pressure to begin the rollout of vaccines, they will remember which countries came to their aid and when. And where Russian and Chinese vaccines are going today their influence may follow, and that puts U.S. interests at risk, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What responsibility do pharmaceutical companies have to make their product more accessible?

BOLLYKY: They have an enormous responsibility. Pharmaceutical companies have received significant public monies. They have a responsibility to have doses ready to go abroad and price them fairly. But it really is a partnership between governments and companies that need to be moving forward, but neither side can do it alone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking at the picture as it stands at the moment, how long do you think it's going to take to sufficiently inoculate the world in order to really get a handle on the COVID-19 disaster?

BOLLYKY: It depends to some degree on the variants. We don't know yet how effective our individual vaccines are against these variants. We also don't know how much additional supplies we will need to vaccinate populations because these variants spread more quickly. But even assuming good news on both of those counts, it's going to take years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Tom Bollyky, director of the Global Health program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much.

BOLLYKY: Thanks again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.