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The Challenges Of Vaccinating The World

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to widen our lens here to talk about how to help the rest of the world cope with this crisis. Almost 50% of the world's population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which doesn't sound too bad when you consider there are more than 7 billion people on the planet. But when you take a closer look at the picture, you see that it's skewed. Citizens of wealthy nations make up an overwhelming proportion of the population of the vaccinated. In most poorer countries, only 2% of the people have received a dose.

The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than 1 billion doses to the global vaccination push, so we're wondering if that will make an impact and what else would. To talk about that, we called Dr. Saad Omer. He is the director of the Yale Institute of Global Health. Dr. Omer, thank you so much for joining us once again.

SAAD OMER: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So can you explain some of the challenges that low-income countries are facing when it comes to acquiring and then administering the shots? And how does the administration's plan address this, or does it?

OMER: Well, the biggest problem that low-income countries have right now is supply. They were promised a pretty substantial supply in 2020, and, well, but those supplies haven't materialized. And one of the reasons is that high-income countries blocked those doses, in a way, for their own use, and that supply is not available or hasn't been available for a while. So now there are some signs that that is increasing, and it is - you know, the U.S. donations are likely to have already saved a lot of lives. But having substantial donation doesn't mean that these are sufficient efforts.

MARTIN: So I take your point that the U.S. has made large donations and has actually delivered on those promised donations. Is there more that you think the U.S. should be doing?

OMER: So first of all, these donations will, as I said, go a long way in saving lives. But this should be paired up with further increase in production for international supply. But it also should mean a comprehensive technology transfer initiative, an end-to-end technology transfer initiative to low-income countries. I'll give you an example. WHO is facilitating a MRNA vaccine hub, technology transfer hub, in South Africa and has the infrastructure, potentially, to scale up to produce some of these vaccines. And a lot of players are there, but what is absent is an MRNA technology transfer partner like Moderna.

MARTIN: You're saying that there's an argument that if you really want to make a dent in this thing, then you have to move the capacity closer to the countries that need it, and the way to do that is by sharing intellectual property and technology on vaccine production. That's what I hear you saying. What's your best argument for that? You could hear - you can imagine why some American citizens would argue that, you know, that American companies created this technology and its intellectual property and that transferring it to, you know, other countries is not in the best interests of the United States and the American taxpayers who paid for it. So what's your argument about why that is really ideal?

OMER: Well, there are two reasons for this. First of all, this is a public health emergency, and history will judge us poorly if we don't stand up to the moment, if we don't meet the moment as a government, as a country. But there's another reason to do this. It's the enlightened self-interest of controlling a global pandemic. That impacts everyone.

MARTIN: You have watched this this whole crisis unfold, and if - may I ask you what - to take - may I take your temperature, as it were, and ask, how optimistic are you that the world is getting ahead of this or is on the verge of controlling this? How are you assessing things, given everything you've told us?

OMER: Look, I am sad, and I am saddened by the level of inequity there is. Yes, a lot of us knew that this could happen, and this was a huge possibility, given the access to resources. But what is saddening and what is surprising and what is heartbreaking is the fact that more people have died globally - a lot more people have died globally since the vaccines became available, since high-income countries started vaccinating their own populations. And so this is heartbreaking. But, look, I have been working on global health-related work since the age of 19. And you have to be thick-skinned, and you have to be optimistic, and you have to have a perspective that the glass is 10% full rather than 90% empty. So I think we can make this happen, but the heartbreaking thing will be that each delay has a cost in human lives.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health. Dr. Omer, thank you so much for talking to us once again.

OMER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "VIOLET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.