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Most countries will fall short of global initiative to vaccinate 40% of populations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Almost as soon as the pandemic started, international health organizations joined forces to ensure that all countries would have access to vaccines. The program they created is known as COVAX. It was supposed to purchase vaccines from manufacturers, distribute them to countries according to their need and charge them according to their ability to pay. Yet as we reach the end of 2021 and the omicron variant spreads across the globe, the vast majority of people in poor countries are still unvaccinated. We're joined now by NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman.

Hey, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Where do things stand in terms of vaccination rates around the world?

AIZENMAN: OK, so you may remember the United Nations and the World Health Organization had set a goal of ensuring that by the close of this year, at least 40% of people in each country would be vaccinated - a modest goal. But unfortunately, about 70 countries are on track to miss it. Most of these countries are low- or lower-middle-income countries. And while they include a few countries in Latin America, South Asia, even Eastern Europe, it's really notable that as you look on the map, pretty much all of Africa is going to miss the target. And, you know, in many of these countries, the share that are vaccinated is way lower than 40%. I mean, less than 10% of the African continent has been vaccinated.

KELLY: And do we know why? Is this lack of supply? Is this logistical challenges? Is this people just saying I don't want to get a vaccine?

AIZENMAN: Those last two issues are definitely challenges, but in most cases, supply is still the biggest obstacle.

KELLY: Well, which is interesting because that's exactly what COVAX was created to help with. So where does that leave us? Has COVAX been a failure?

AIZENMAN: You know, I put that question to one of the public health experts who's been closely tracking COVAX. His name is Krishna Udayakumar of Duke University. And he said that things would have been far worse without COVAX. To date, it has been able to distribute more than 800 million vaccine doses to more than 140 countries.

KRISHNA UDAYAKUMAR: Many of which wouldn't get access to vaccines as quickly or in the amounts that they have otherwise - but we know that it's nowhere near enough, and COVAX has also fallen short.

AIZENMAN: Specifically, he says it was kind of naive in the way it was set up and that it didn't account for the huge competition COVAX faced from wealthy countries who got to the front of the line in negotiating contracts with the major vaccine-makers early on, such that once vaccines started to become available, that early supply was almost entirely earmarked for wealthy countries. And it's still only slowly making its way to the rest of the world.

KELLY: I wonder what the takeaway then is - and not just for this pandemic but when it comes, alas, to preparing for future ones.

AIZENMAN: I spoke with Seth Berkley. He's head of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, one of the organizations that operates COVAX. He said that a huge initial challenge was they had to spend month upon month raising money for the effort.

SETH BERKLEY: You'd want to have financing available on Day 1. And that would allow - even if it meant you couldn't compete with the U.S. Treasury or the European Union, you might be able to do technology transfers.

AIZENMAN: Meaning they could have invested money to help other manufacturers get up to speed on the technology to produce additional vaccines. As it was, COVAX was only able to really do that with one company, Serum Institute of India. And then when India was hit with a massive wave of cases last spring, all of that supply ended up getting directed to India for months, and it's only just starting to make its way to COVAX. Also, right now there are just very few vaccine makers in low-income countries, so Berkley and others say a lot more needs to be done to increase their number.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Nurith.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Nurith Aizenman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "PEACEFUL GROOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.