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Developed Countries Plan To Start Vaccination Soon. What About The Rest Of The World?


Well, as Americans fight this latest surge of the coronavirus, the global fight is getting some help. The U.K. authorized the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer, and injections will begin next week. At the same time, both Pfizer and Moderna have applied for emergency use in the U.S., and AstraZeneca is close on their heels. That company announced last week that its vaccine is close to 70% effective. Here in the U.S., health officials expect to start immunizing some people by the end of the month. But what about less wealthy nations in other parts of the world? Will they have access to these vaccines. And if so, when? NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff looks into those questions.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: When the pandemic began, rich countries in the world went on a buying spree. Some have even called it panic buying. Wealthy countries started making agreements with pharmaceutical companies, often in secret, to purchase experimental COVID-19 vaccines even before clinical trials had finished.

Andrea Taylor is at Duke University. She's been closely tracking these purchases around the world.

ANDREA TAYLOR: Our data show that almost 10 billion doses have been reserved, and the majority of those have been purchased by high-income countries.

DOUCLEFF: So, for example, nearly all of the Pfizer doses right now are going to rich countries, same with Moderna's doses.

TAYLOR: The initial Moderna doses are going to go to the U.S.

DOUCLEFF: Right now, Taylor says, there's little vaccine for poor countries. And in many places, people won't get immunized until 2022 or even 2023.

TAYLOR: Yeah, there are very significant inequalities. And we are really not seeing those close at all over the last couple of months.

DOUCLEFF: In fact, next year, the U.S., Canada and the European Union will likely have too many doses. The U.S. will probably have enough to vaccinate their population two times over, and Canada will have enough for their population five times over. Niko Lusiani is a senior adviser for the nonprofit Oxfam. He says these countries are hoarding doses. And he says there's no moral or scientific reason to do that.

NIKO LUSIANI: It's understandable to a certain extent that you want to protect your own people. That being said, it's leaving a lot of people out.

DOUCLEFF: People who are at high risk of catching the disease or dying from it. For instance, Lusiani says a person with a low risk in the U.S. will likely get vaccinated before high-risk people in many poor countries, like health care workers or the elderly.

LUSIANI: I work in front of a computer right now in the safety of my home. I would be happy to withhold taking a vaccine so that a granny with a medical condition in Kuala Lumpur or in Lima, Peru, can get access to the vaccine. And I think a lot of people feel that way.

DOUCLEFF: That all said, there is good news here for the world. Lusiani says that news comes from the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and its partner Oxford University. More than half of those doses will go to low- and middle-income countries, including at least 500 million to India and 300 million to what's called COVAX, an initiative with the World Health Organization that helps the poorest countries acquire doses. Kalipso Chalkidou is at the Center for Global Development. She says the AstraZeneca vaccine is critical for making the vaccine more accessible around the world for several reasons. First off, it's going to be a lot cheaper.

KALIPSO CHALKIDOU: The company signaled that they want to make this available to people in poorer countries at the lowest price possible, you know, effectively at a cost. That's quite important.

DOUCLEFF: The AstraZeneca vaccine is also going to be easier to transport and store. And finally, Chalkidou says, the company is rapidly scaling up manufacturing by sharing their technology with other vaccine-makers because, she says, if the world really wants to end this pandemic, it's going to need billions of doses of not just a vaccine, but an affordable one.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.