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Global disparities highlighted by uneven access to COVID vaccines

The West African country of Ghana on Wednesday became the first nation to receive a delivery of COVID-19 vaccines through a global initiative called COVAX, which aims to give more equitable access to the vaccine. Nick Schifrin reports and speaks to Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, medical director of the special pathogens unit at Boston Medical Center, to learn more about global inequities.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who gets the vaccine and when are not only serious questions in the U.S., but also around the globe.

    A group of rich countries is buying up billions of doses.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, the United Nations is stepping into the breach with its own plan to increase vaccine equity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On a tarmac in Western Africa, Ghanaians welcome a European vaccine delivered by an Arab airline manufactured in India sponsored by the United Nations.

    That global effort is the U.N.'s COVAX program, and Anne-Claire Dufay is UNICEF's Ghana representative.

  • Anne-Claire Dufay:

    This is really a historic moment.

    Today, we're very happy to receive the first batch of COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX facility.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine is the beginning of what the U.N. calls the largest procurement, distribution and supply operation in world history.

    It's designed to deliver 1.3 billion vaccines this year to more than 90 low-and middle-income countries. Vaccine equity has been a global call.

    From South Africa, which has recorded half of the continent's deaths, President Cyril Ramaphosa.

  • Cyril Ramaphosa:

    We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and other countries are not vaccinating.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To Mexico, which last week received the Pfizer vaccine, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador:

  • Andrés Manuel López Obrador (through translator):

    These are things that we want to see in the U.N., that there be equity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.N. says residents in just 10 countries have received 80 percent of the world's shots. Europe has ordered 2.5 billion doses half-a-billion residents. COVAX is hampered by that limited supply and logistical challenges.

    The U.N. calls that a — quote — "catastrophic moral failure."

  • Secretary-General António Guterres:

  • António Guterres (through translator):

    The latest moral outrage is the failure to ensure equity in vaccination efforts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But countries ahead of the curve are pursuing vaccine diplomacy. Israel has vaccinated a higher percentage of its population than any country.

    And now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited a gym on Sunday, promises to share excess vaccine with partners in the region and world.

    Russia launched an English-language campaign, V For victory, or V for Sputnik V vaccine.

  • Man (through translator):

    Sputnik V is the first registered vaccine against COVID-19 in the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The largest effort comes from China, whose state television broadcasts deliveries of Chinese vaccines all over the world.

    In the U.S., last week, President Biden pledged $4 billion to help COVAX.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all of this, we turn to Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, the medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center and an associate professor of infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine. She also served as a clinician during the Ebola outbreaks in West and East Africa in 2014 and 2015.

    Dr. Bhadelia, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    How important is it that vaccine distribution is equitable globally?

  • Dr. Nahid Bhadelia:

    Hi there, Nick.

    It's critical. And it's not just critical because it's the right thing to do, because you have now a setup where a majority of the world or parts of the world that may not get this vaccine for years. And what you see is that, with a protracted pandemic, you can't recover the economy and you continue to lose the gains that have been made and health indicators and education indicators, because it's all related, the longer you see turmoil.

    And not only that, but you have countries, entire countries that have not vaccinated any of their health care workers. And as you see loss of health care workers, that might affect health indicators in other ways as well.

    But there are selfish reasons to do this as well. One is the variants. We're seeing now that these variants, with increased transmission of this disease anywhere in the world, you're going to see new variants appear, and that's why that equity is important for us, as well as for others.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Western countries have bought more vaccines than they have people, but there is still a supply shortage. There is still a lot of pressure in individual countries, on governments to vaccinate their own people, of course.

    How quickly should Western governments be releasing supply?

  • Nahid Bhadelia:

    Well, I think a big part of this is, every country is going to have to make a decision, but I would say as soon as we can.

    You know, last week's dedication, the commitment that President Biden made was important, because it also then made further commitments possible from the European Union and others.

    But money is actually not the only issue, right? Because what the director general of the WHO has said is, it's just the availability of the vaccines. And so part of this is going to be tied to how quickly the richer countries can make manufacturing capacity grow, not just for their own constituents, but also for the global community.

    I think we should be donating a portion, personally, as we go along, because this will help ensure the resilience remains in the rest of the world, and it protects us from those variants, as I said.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Part of the question of that supply, of course, is the newer vaccines.

    Just today, Johnson & Johnson got pretty good marks from the FDA, and it does not need the ultra-cold cold storage that we have seen previous vaccines need. How important is it that new vaccines come along to try and solve that supply problem?

  • Nahid Bhadelia:

    Well, the big, good news about Johnson & Johnson is not just the fact that it can handle refrigeration at normal rates, vs. the Pfizer vaccine, which currently requires ultra-freezing temperatures, which may — actually may change, because they have submitted new data to FDA for warmer temperatures.

    But it's also that it's one dose. And it can actually reduce risk for death and hospitalization to 100 percent after 28 days. And so it's both the dosing, but also because, in many resource-limited settings, maintaining that cold chain to get to the last mile is going to be important.

    So, absolutely important we have candidates that do that now, the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, and we're hoping potentially Novavax as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At the end of our story, we noted the vaccine diplomacy, vaccine nationalism that we're seeing out of Russia and China.

    On Russia, more than 200 countries have signed up for Sputnik V, but Russia is struggling creating enough supply and vaccinating its own people. Are there countries that are overpromising distribution of vaccine and underdelivering?

  • Nahid Bhadelia:

    Well, currently, I think it's a little too early to tell.

    I think part of this will be how — not only how much can be sent, but how much can be actually timely distributed in those resource — the resource-limited countries.

    I — the thing that worries me in some of these setups of more well-resourced countries distributing vaccines is that we need to ensure that it's not tied to other commitments, right? I think, in all global health diplomacy, you kind of have this give-and-take. But one would hope that, in these settings, particularly in a public health emergency, where vaccinating everybody is important, that sort of secondary gains and political commitments are not part of the game that occurs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, thank you very much.

  • Nahid Bhadelia:

    Thank you.

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