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South Africa Struggled To Get COVID Vaccines After Richer Countries Stockpiled Doses

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

South Africa's COVID-19 vaccination program is showing signs of success. The country is now vaccinating everyone over the age of 18. But the journey has been tumultuous and reveals a global vaccine market impacted by greed and self-interest. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

(CROSSTALK)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The people waiting for the vaccination sit on church pews facing the altar. Florence Berger is the nurse in charge of the center. She says people shuffle, pew to pew, as they get vaccinated.

FLORENCE BERGER: The people move like musical chairs.

PERALTA: So, like, on the pews.

BERGER: Yeah, yeah.

PERALTA: This vaccination center used to serve dozens; now it's hundreds.

BERGER: I tell you, over the past two months, I - we've really seen a major increase. And we've gone from up to over 400.

PERALTA: South Africa has hit its stride, some days vaccinating more than 200,000 people, often accounting for half of sub-Saharan African doses. But getting to this point has been difficult. At the beginning of this pandemic, South Africa signed up for COVAX, the global effort to provide vaccines to poorer countries. But they found out that the vaccine they received, AstraZeneca, was ineffective against the variant dominant in South Africa. Mark van der Heever, a government spokesman, says they had facilities, they had nurses, but no vaccine.

MARK VAN DER HEEVER: We were ready to start administering, but we did not get it.

PERALTA: After that, South Africa started manufacturing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, only to have to throw away millions of doses because of contaminated ingredients from the U.S. They eventually got vaccines rolling out of the factory, but the president had to intervene to keep those doses from being exported to Europe. South Africa has been able to get vaccines by hustling. They ask for donations. They cut deals to get vaccines in exchange for running studies. At one point, they agreed to pay double what European countries were paying.

VAN DER HEEVER: The idea is and the wish, if we can put it that - is to get to population immunity around November, December 2021.

PERALTA: South Africa is now the success story on the continent, expecting the majority of its people will have been vaccinated by the end of the year. But most countries here in sub-Saharan Africa have vaccinated fewer than 3% of their people. And the best-case scenario is that 20% or 30% of their populations will be vaccinated by the end of 2022. This was supposed to be different.

MOSOKA FALLAH: I was too naive. I was very naive.

PERALTA: That is Mosoka Fallah, who is the chief scientist at the National Public Health Institute in Liberia and who also worked in the country during the Ebola epidemic.

FALLAH: And the reason I was naive was I was involved in the work with Ebola vaccines.

PERALTA: Just before COVID arrived, African countries had worked with pharmaceutical giant Merck to stop another Ebola epidemic using an experimental vaccine. They even worked together to create a global stockpile of the Ebola vaccine. So when COVID-19 hit, Fallah thought the world would pick up where it left off. Instead, the wealthy countries began stockpiling manufacturing materials. They bought up many times the doses their populations needed. And the global initiative to provide vaccine to poorer nations crumbled when India was hit by the delta variant and stopped shipping them. As Fallah sees it, greed and self-interest won out.

FALLAH: Countries are driven by so much self-interest to the extreme that the geography of an individual determines whether he lives or die.

PERALTA: At the vaccination site, I find Esther Plaatjies. She's sitting on one of the church pews. She's holding her vaccination card with a huge smile. She's 70 with heart problems. It took her two months to get an appointment for her first shot. Now that she's fully vaccinated, she says, she feels blessed.

ESTHER PLAATJIES: I'm really blessed, and I'm safe because there's a lot of people that don't do it and are scared (ph).

PERALTA: I ask her what she thinks about those people in the United States who can go to any pharmacy to get a shot but haven't bothered.

PLAATJIES: I think they're stupid. They - I think they are blessed. And those who don't take it, I think they are very irresponsible.

PERALTA: Maybe, she muses, they just don't know how good they have it.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Cape Town, South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE CHILDREN SONG, "ANOTHER DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.