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As wealthy nations push 4th booster shots, Africa is being left behind

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, let's check in on the vaccination effort in Africa. Only a fifth of people on the continent are fully vaccinated. Plans to bring more doses to African nations have fallen short. Last month the World Trade Organization reached a deal to relax patent protections so poor countries could produce vaccines themselves. We're joined now by the co-chair of the African Union's Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance (ph), Dr. Ayoade Alakija. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AYOADE ALAKIJA: Thank you very much. It's good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: To begin with, you work at the forefront of vaccine distribution and access for African nations. So just give us a snapshot of what the situation looks like across the continent right now.

ALAKIJA: Well, I mean, as you say, I've been working over the last couple of years at the forefront not just for access to vaccines but for access to all counter-measures, which includes diagnostics and now treatments, as they become available, to ensure that those in the low- and low-middle-income countries of the world, many and most of which are on the African continent, have the same access to vaccines, diagnostics, which are tests and treatments like things like Paxlovid and other - and oxygen, the very basics that people in the U.S., the U.K., EU and other parts of the world have. That has been a deeply depressing role to be in, really, over the last couple of years as we have seen that the high-income countries of the world have clearly prioritized themselves but forgotten that this pandemic is affecting all of us.

SHAPIRO: What does that inequality translate to in terms of human experience? You told the New York Times, people are dying silently.

ALAKIJA: People absolutely are dying silently. And thank you for talking about it in human terms because I think, you know, we saw in the early days those awful images from New York hospitals, from America and from hospitals in Brazil. And that was the measure of the impact. But what do you do in countries where you do not have health systems to be overwhelmed? So we have said, for parts of the world and parts of Africa, that, oh, well, they hadn't had COVID. But that is not true. It is just we haven't had the cameras been able to roll that B-roll in hospital wards because those wards do not exist, in ICUs because in many communities, ICUs do not exist. So people have died silently. People have died at home. So many of these deaths have gone unrecorded. And therefore, there has been a silent pandemic, a silent toll on parts of this world where the inequity in measuring the impact of the pandemic itself is pushing the inequity of access to the countermeasures and to the tools needed to prevent further infection.

SHAPIRO: World leaders are sounding the alarm about the more transmissible B.A5 variant, and in the fall, the U.S. and other highly developed nations are expected to get boosters that specifically target that variant. Do you expect that those supplies are likely to reach African nations?

ALAKIJA: Absolutely not. I mean, the vaccine doses are rolling out to the African continent but far too little, far too late in many ways. You know, we were left at the back of the queue whilst the rest of the world has moved on. You know, the rest of the world is providing not just fourth boosters - you know, what we're calling the primary series plus a booster. But they're also now looking at variant-adaptive vaccines. They're looking at the next generation of vaccines. There, of course, has been greed. There, of course, has been the sense of, we must take care of our own first. And that is human nature. And any global leader, any president, any prime minister has a responsibility primarily to their own.

But when you recognize that this virus is a virus; it is not a person; it is not a system; it is a virus that is airborne - and therefore, unless all of the world is safe and is protected from it, we will continue to see these waves. Now, today, it is B.A5. We don't know what it will be tomorrow. So it is self-defeating because to take care of one's own self should be to take care of the rest of the world and to help the rest of the world take care of themselves. Not charity but global solidarity and partnership, I think, is what the world is calling for, which is lacking.

SHAPIRO: What do you make of the World Trade Organization's deal that is supposed to make it easier for poorer nations to access COVID vaccines? How much of a difference do you expect this to make?

ALAKIJA: Sadly, in reality, it is very watered down. It is not going to help for COVID today, and it does not include tests and treatments. It is just for vaccines - very limited, very, very narrow for vaccines only. What we need is a broader agreement. And I understand they're going back to that negotiating table to work on tests and treatments. And until we can produce what we need in Africa, what we need in Latin America, what we need in Asia-Pacific ourselves, we are always going to go back into this scenario because people's nature is to protect their own. So there will be export bans and various measures to stop whatever it is, be it a vaccine or treatment leaving the shores, because people are trying to protect their own. So what we in Africa are saying is we need to be able to produce ourselves. We're not asking for permission. We're asking you to stop, to remove the roadblocks in the way. The scientists are ahead. But policy is behind, and policy is what is holding the world back in this moment.

SHAPIRO: And so having waged this fight for equity every day over more than two years of this pandemic, do you have any hope that this gap can be closed?

ALAKIJA: That - do I have hope? One must always have hope. Do I have hope that the equity gap can be closed? I think the equity gap is due to so much more that is fundamental within our systems. I think the equity gap is due to the fact that the global health and global development infrastructure is flawed and fundamentally broken. Many of the systems we're working with today, the Bretton Woods institutions, were put together post-World War II to fix Europe. Listen to what I just said. They were put together to fix Europe, and yet they're being applied to the rest of the world. They are not fit for purpose. They are based largely in high-income parts of the world. They are not fit for purpose for low- and low-middle-income countries.

So what we must do is we must reshape. We must reimagine. We must rebuild the global health and global development architecture of this world to make it more inclusive, to make it such that the voices from the South can be heard and can be understood, where we build it again together for the good of the whole world, not just for some of the world, so that all may have a chance at life and quality of life and the true definition of health.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Ayodele Alakija, co-chair of the African Union's Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, speaking with us from Abuja, Nigeria. Thank you so much.

ALAKIJA: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.