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4 ways the US can help stem COVID deaths globally

While the pandemic's toll is easing in the U.S., COVID-19 still has a deadly grip on many other countries. The estimated global death toll remains around 13,000 people a day, and the World Health Organization's new estimates are far higher. William Brangham discusses them with Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases and global medicine specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    While the pandemic's toll is easing here in the U.S., it still has a firm, deadly grip on a number of other countries.

    The estimated global death toll from COVID-19 remains around 13,000 people a day. And the WHO's new estimates are far higher than many realize.

    William Brangham looks now at some of the implications.

  • William Brangham:

    Amna, things are indeed better in the U.S., but, still, more than 600 people died from COVID-19 in America in the past 24 hours, though, in other countries, the official toll is many times higher, and new infections keep climbing.

    India reported more than 4,200 deaths in the last day, Brazil more than 2, 400. In fact, six of the countries with the highest current death rates are in South America. And, according to the WHO, that's likely a significant underestimate of the real toll, off by three to four million deaths, at least.

    And for many of these nations, lifesaving vaccines are barely available.

    Dr. Monica Gandhi specializes in infectious diseases and global medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Dr. Gandhi, great to have you on the program.

    Do you think that these WHO estimates are accurate? And if those horrible numbers are real, what does that say about the real danger we are still in from this virus?

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi:

    You know, this is a very dangerous virus.

    And like you just said, there's this paradox of places that have vaccinated quickly and are wealthy and have access to those vaccines going back to normal and discussing, when do we get to take off masks?

    And that paradox is completely in — out of sync with what's going on in so many places in this world. This is a highly deadly virus. But beyond that, health systems matter. So, places where health systems are equipped to manage this load don't have the oxygen, don't have the capacity.

    The fatality rate of this infection is going to be higher. And I'm not surprised — I'm sad, but not surprised that the death toll, as the WHO said, is likely much higher, 13,000 a day.

  • William Brangham:

    You touched on, of course, what we know is the way out of this pandemic, which are these lifesaving vaccines.

    What role should the U.S. and the U.S. policy-makers play in trying to accelerate the spread of those vaccines globally?

  • Monica Gandhi:

    Yes, you know, you're exactly right.

    The only way we can get out of the vaccines. And we actually have the solution. We have it.

    And I think that the United States can play a role in four ways. I think that we are — want to go back to being that global health leader, that we have played that role so often in the past

    And the four ways really are something that we have already done, which is, for the future, work with the WTO to temporarily waive vaccine patents. This has already been signaled that the Biden administration supports this. Other countries aren't signing on. It's important for them to keep on pushing on that, or — the U.S., because this is for the future for countries that are not yet in trouble.

    For what countries that are in trouble right now, we need to donate or loan doses. And we do have excess doses. In fact, I wrote a piece in The Atlantic with others, and many people have echoed this, that our young, our kids in this country could even wait to get their doses of vaccine to help people who are much, much more likely to get severe disease in other countries.

    And we do have surplus doses. Duke has actually estimated with 300 million surplus doses. So, although I appreciate the 20 million doses that President Biden signaled the other day, plus 60 million AstraZeneca, we have more than that.

    Third is that pharmaceutical companies should use philanthropy. This is a global health crisis. They will make money. They should use philanthropy. They should give doses. And I do believe the U.S. could help with urging them.

    And then fourth is the U.S. global role as convening the U.N. in terms of global manufacturing, and really, along with the WHO, figuring out how to get vaccines immediately into places that are surging, and later into places that are likely to surge.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to touch back on one of those points that you made, which is the Biden administration supporting temporarily waiving the patent rights for these vaccines.

    You wrote recently that, back in the 1990s, during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, that adherence to patent rights killed millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa? Do you think, in this debate, we have given too much credence to pharmaceutical companies' arguments about this?

  • Monica Gandhi:

    Yes, we have, because what we — I wrote about was that, as an HIV doctor, I saw from 1996 to 2001, and even all the way to 2005, arguments about whether we should temporarily waive patents, while millions died in sub-Saharan Africa of AIDS, and people who were living with HIV in the U.S. and Europe had access to lifesaving medications.

    The disparity was so great, and the arguments went on for so long, years and years, while people were dying. And, finally, a lawsuit actually was filed by pharmaceutical companies against South Africa because they were purchasing cheaper drugs from India, India, who provided antiretroviral therapy to the world, who's now in trouble.

    And that lawsuit got so much international pressure to drop that the pharmaceutical companies dropped it, and it was recognized that this was terribly important, that, if we have access to these medications, we can't let people die in other places.

    So, yes, we have to work on vaccine patent waivers now, because if sub-Saharan Africa right now is improving, they will, COVID will eventually get everyone. It will come to every country until we can get them vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Monica Gandhi, U.C. San Francisco, thank you very much.

  • Monica Gandhi:

    Thank you.

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