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Health & Science

As U.S. Races Ahead With Vaccination, Many Other Countries Are Stuck

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration has announced plans to try to secure another 200 million doses of vaccines for COVID-19 and said it should be enough to immunize most of the country by July. But many other parts of the world, the vaccine news is grim. UNICEF says nearly 130 countries still haven't administered a single dose. Now South Africa has abruptly switched vaccines for the launch of its national immunization campaign. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us.

Jason, thanks for being with us.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

SIMON: That figure from UNICEF - 130 countries - is alarming.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it is. You know, we're talking about countries with 2 1/2 billion people that haven't started vaccinating any of their health care workers or really anybody outside of clinical trials. And it's not for lack of trying. Almost all of these countries, except for some of the poorest of the poor, they're all trying to get their hands on these incredibly limited vaccine doses that are out there right now. And many of them simply can't get any.

SIMON: Tell us about South Africa. It was all set to start its immunization campaign next week. Suddenly, they switched vaccines.

BEAUBIEN: They were planning on using the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. And then results came back from a fairly small study in South Africa that was showing that AstraZeneca might not be very effective against a new variant of the virus that's become dominant in South Africa. So just days before they were going to launch this national campaign, they switched to another vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson. The WHO's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, she says this isn't sort of a problem with AstraZeneca. Many vaccine manufacturers now are finding that their products aren't as effective against these new strains of the virus. And some of the people who get vaccinated still end up getting mild infections. But Swaminathan says the vaccines do appear to keep people from getting really sick with COVID, and that's good news.

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SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN: Our goal in the first wave of vaccinating people is to protect those at highest risk from severe disease and hospitalization and death.

BEAUBIEN: And she says, you know, all the studies so far have shown that even these ones against the variants, they do protect people from getting really sick and dying.

SIMON: Do you think other countries might make the switch as well?

BEAUBIEN: Possibly, but the thing is, AstraZeneca currently is the most important vaccine in the global arsenal against COVID. A lot of low and middle-income countries are completely banking on it. Countries have pre-purchased more AstraZeneca product than any other vaccine. There are orders out there right now for 2 billion - with a B - doses of AstraZeneca. You know, and despite some of the new concerns about variants, many scientists say there's good reason to be optimistic that AstraZeneca will continue to help countries rein in this pandemic. This is Bruce Aylward. He's also with the WHO. He says we are at war with this virus right now.

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BRUCE AYLWARD: We've got to optimize our control over this virus as rapidly as possible. And we use the tools we can as rapidly as possible.

BEAUBIEN: And he says one of the best tools we have right now are these vaccines.

SIMON: You might pick up something in his phrasing. For a long time, there was talk about using the vaccine to end the pandemic. Now it seems to be about controlling it.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, that's right. You know, there does seem to be this shift that's going on right now, and countries are saying we're - just get it under control. The vaccines might not completely wipe it out, but we are probably going to be able to keep it from becoming as - being as deadly as it has been.

SIMON: NPR's Jason Beaubien, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.