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Poorer nations are ‘perilously at risk’ as delta variant spreads. Can the U.S. help?

More than 4 million people have officially died from COVID-19 globally, but the actual number is almost certainly much higher. As wealthy nations with high vaccination rates like the U.S. begin emerging from the pandemic, the disease is accelerating in parts of the world. Nick Schifrin begins the report, and Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist watching the delta variant closely joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now the staggering death toll from COVID-19.

    As we mark more than four million dead around the world, the actual number will likely never be known. And as the U.S. and other wealthy nations with relatively high vaccination rates begin emerging from the pandemic, the disease and its variants are accelerating in some parts of the world, killing more quickly than ever.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As South Africa walks through the valley of the shadow of death, there is plenty of fear and little comfort

  • Dr. Kgosi Letlape:

    The deaths are now not numbers on a news station. These are people you know. It's family. It's relatives. It's friends. It's colleagues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Kgosi Letlape is a physician and activist in Johannesburg. He says, while the U.S. is normalizing, the world and Africa are struggling because of vaccine shortages.

  • Kgosi Letlape:

    If it stays like that, not only are we not safe. The world will also not be safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On a day like today, it's difficult to comprehend, four million, equal to the victims of every war everywhere, for the last 40 years, equal to the entire population of Los Angeles, equal to the entire nation of Georgia.

    Back in Johannesburg, these COVID patients are the lucky ones. They have beds in makeshift clinics set up by volunteer medics. South Africa's public hospitals are overflowing. Health care workers are overwhelmed. A third COVID wave is driven by an expanding Delta variant and shrinking vaccine supply.

  • Kgosi Letlape:

    That is our single biggest challenge right now. But a lot of the Western governments have stockpiles of vaccine. Let's release those to where they are needed right now and increase production of vaccines globally.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    South Africa's story is a global one. As Delta spreads through countries with few vaccines, hospitalizations and deaths are at new highs.

    It took nine months for one million to die. But the death toll rose from three million to four million in just two-and-a-half months. In the U.S., the Delta variant is quickly spreading. In some areas, it accounts for 80 percent of cases, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said today.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    This rapid rise is troubling. We know that the Delta variant has increased transmissibility and it is currently surging in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But at least much of the U.S. is vaccinated. Much of the world's governments can't vaccinate their own people.

    And at this point, vaccines are the only way out, as White House COVID coordinator Jeffrey Zients admitted today.

  • Jeff Zients:

    It's another life protected, another community that is safer, and another step toward putting this pandemic behind us that has, sadly, taken more than 600,000 lives here at home and a total of four million lives around the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four million people. And in the 2.5 minutes since this story began, another 15 people died of COVID.

    For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's fill in more of the global picture and the struggle to vaccinate as the Delta variant spreads.

    Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo is an epidemiologist who watches this closely at Johns Hopkins University Center for Global Health Security.

    Dr. Nuzzo, welcome back, to the "NewsHour."

    And, as we say, someone who watched this closely from the beginning, what is the significance to you of this four million milestone?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    It just an absolutely staggering, very grim milestone to reach.

    And it's terrible just to think that we have lost four million human beings, but also knowing that that is probably an undercount, because being able to diagnose infection and count deaths is, frankly, a luxury that a lot of places in the world don't have the ability to do.

    And I reflect on COVID in 2021, and I think about the fact that we now have in production and availability vaccines, tools that can prevent these tests. The fact that we have added more deaths since the invention of vaccines for COVID than we had beforehand is just — it's just an utter tragedy.

    These deaths can be prevented if we are able to get vaccines to where they need to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And as we saw in that report from Nick, Nick Schifrin, the picture in the rest of the world is just utterly grim.

    The WHO was saying today the continent of Africa, this past week, its worst ever.

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Yes, I mean, I think in the beginning part of this pandemic, there was this false narrative that this was a virus that was only affecting rich countries, and that there were certain countries and parts of the world that were largely spared.

    We are now seeing that that was an absolutely false assumption. And, unfortunately, I think it maybe took off some of the pressure to make sure that we not only developed vaccines, but that we developed plans, real operational plans, to make sure we share the vaccines that we do produce.

    And we are seeing this virus ravage all parts of the globe. And really any country that as of now hasn't been able to vaccinate large portions of the population and haven't had a large surge of cases remains perilously at risk.

    We are seeing the virus surging in parts of the world where they had been previously successful at containing the spread of the virus, but these new variants outpace those efforts. It is very hard to keep up with the traditional public health methods that countries have been using.

    And, really, the only pathway to the prevention of this incredible loss of life and to return to normal for the globe is to ensure that all countries have access to vaccines, so that they can protect their populations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, how do you get that done? We heard the doctor say in that report, the rest of the world, there is a stockpile of vaccines. What needs to happen?

    The U.S. is now shipping, what, half-a-billion-plus doses. Other wealthy countries are shipping some vaccines to poorer countries.

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Yes, so, a number of countries have pledged vaccines, which is really important. The G7 has come up with about two billion vaccine pledge. That is important. I don't want to undersell what an incredible achievement that is.

    That said, we — the estimates are that we need about 5.5 billion vaccines. So, first of all, we need to figure out a way to make more and to make more quickly. And the other thing that we need to do is make sure that these pledges turn into actual vaccines shipped to where they need to be going.

    And, unfortunately, some of those efforts are really falling behind schedule. We have a very narrow window of time to act. If I see a proposal for sharing vaccines or making more vaccines that stretches beyond a year, I have to actually question how much of an impact it is going to have, because we need vaccines right now to save the most amount of lives.

    This virus is moving across the planet quickly. So it is essential that we get vaccines to arms — in arms as quickly as possible. And, really, in the next few months, it is going to be absolutely critical.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you are talking about policy decisions, policy changes at the highest levels here in the United States and in other countries.

    And then we had the announcement today from Pfizer that it may be within just a few weeks of seeking U.S. authorization for a booster, a third shot, which presumably would be in big demand here in the United States.

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Yes.

    So I think we have to have some of tough conversations about how we are going to use the vaccines that exist on the planet. Today, about 75 percent of the world's vaccines have been used by only a handful of countries. And they are all high-income countries.

    I think, when we are talking about using vaccines in low-priority populations, when we're thinking about possibly giving a third booster, I think we have to really have a hard look at whether that is an ethical thing to do or if that's something that we can do later, after some of the world has had an opportunity to protect its most vulnerable, to at least protect their health care workers who put their lives on the line every day.

    If we let countries put their health care workers at risk, and they lose their health care workers, those countries are not going to be ready for future events. The fact that all of us have had to sit home at various points in this pandemic has been because we are acutely concerned about the ability of health systems to be able to respond to a surge of cases.

    So, you can imagine that, if we allow health care workers to get infected, and not be able to care for patients, that countries are just going to be absolutely crippled by that.

    So, I think we have to have a hard look at how we're using the vaccines that are in existence now. And, in my view, talk about a booster, except for some very limited populations that we don't think have mounted an immune response from the vaccine doses that they have received to date, I think it is really premature to be talking about that, when the vast majority of the world has not even had access to one shot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some very, very tough tradeoffs that certainly deserve addressing.

    Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Global Health Security, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Thank you.

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