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The State Of Global Vaccination And Vaccination Diplomacy


As COVID vaccination rates increase in the United States, there's a growing focus on the other parts of the world that have only immunized a handful of their citizens. Some countries haven't started vaccinations at all. NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us to help get a better sense of what's happening globally with COVID-19 vaccination.

Welcome back, Jason.


CORNISH: I want to start by getting a lay of the land. Who is getting vaccinated? Who is not?

BEAUBIEN: So if you were to, like, look at the globe with little dots of who's gotten their jabs already, there would be spatterings all over the map. But most of the dots, most of those vaccinations, have been happening in just a few countries. Of the roughly half a billion doses that have been given globally, 75% of them have gone into people's arms in the United States, Europe, China and India. And the U.S., with roughly 25% of Americans having gotten at least one dose, has administered more doses than anybody else. But if you look elsewhere, most countries have only gotten a tiny portion of their people vaccinated. Carissa Etienne - she's the head of the WHO's Regional Office for the Americas - says there's simply not enough vaccine available right now.

CARISSA ETIENNE: Some countries in our region have received zero doses of vaccines. Other countries are getting enough to vaccinate a mere 2- to 3% of their populations.

BEAUBIEN: And the countries that still have less than 1% immunized, we're not just talking about some small, tiny countries that you might imagine would have difficulty purchasing vaccine, but places like Japan, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines. All of them have less than 1% of their people vaccinated right now.

CORNISH: Help us understand what's going on here, why these larger, wealthier countries also have a small portion vaccinated compared to the U.S.

BEAUBIEN: It's classic supply and demand. Think about this. The global production capacity for all vaccines pre-pandemic was roughly 4 billion doses per year. To get this pandemic under control, we need probably 10 to 15 billion doses of a COVID vaccine. So that means a major scaling up of production of what is a fairly complicated pharmaceutical product.

CORNISH: So is that even possible?

BEAUBIEN: Yes, it is possible. If everything goes according to plan, current manufacturers say they could come up with about 12 billion doses by the end of this year. But it's not clear that those 12 billion will be equitably distributed around the world.

Bruce Aylward with the WHO, he says global disparities in vaccination rates, this is driven by the fact that rich nations early in the pandemic started snatching up contracts with as many vaccine manufacturers as they could. Essentially, they were spreading bets across the roulette table to make sure that they got access to winning vaccines. Other countries that didn't do that? Now, they're left with very few options.

BRUCE AYLWARD: Right now, this is not a financial issue. Right now, this is a problem of access to the product itself. The control of the supply is held by a limited number of countries that have procured most of the doses and the early access to those doses.

CORNISH: So does the U.S. have too many doses, so to speak? More than it needs?

BEAUBIEN: Well, it's interesting because the U.S. has purchased many contracts with companies that have not yet delivered those doses or with some companies that are not yet authorized to be distributed in the United States. For instance, the U.S. now has 30 million doses of AstraZeneca sitting in storage. The Biden administration says it's going to send some 4 million of those doses to Mexico and Canada, where it is currently authorized. Aylward, at the WHO, however, says there are countries in the world that could desperately use the rest of that AstraZeneca stockpile right now.

AYLWARD: We have a long list of countries that are very, very keen to use the AstraZeneca vaccine. We simply cannot get enough of it.

BEAUBIEN: Aylward is saying that the U.S. could lend out those stockpiled vaccines now and get repaid later with other doses. But to get this pandemic under control globally, he says these vaccines need to get out to more countries more quickly.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

Thanks for explaining it to us.

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

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.