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World Health Organization Expert On The Global Landscape Of COVID-19 Vaccinations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The coronavirus does not recognize political or state boundaries, but access to the vaccine is clearly defined by a nation's economics. Richer countries have purchased the bulk of available vaccines. So yesterday the World Health Organization, along with two partners, announced that it intends to start shipping nearly 90 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to countries in Africa this month. Dr. Katherine O'Brien has a good view of the whole landscape of vaccines from her post at the WHO headquarters. That's in Geneva. She says a wrinkle in all this vaccine planning is the variant strains of the COVID-19 virus that have been cropping up. There are two concerns.

KATHERINE O'BRIEN: One is the speed with which vaccines can get out, assuming that those vaccines remain effective against the variants. And, again, we're watching that really carefully. The second is not just speed, but are these vaccines still effective against the variants?

CORNISH: Give us a sense of the need in Africa in particular. Where will this supply go? And what's been the state of play on the continent so far?

O'BRIEN: The pandemic really moves around. We see different countries having surges of cases at different times. And, of course, with surges of cases and transmission comes surges of deaths in the aftermath of those cases. The idea that we're pursuing - the world is pursuing is not to try and move the vaccine into one country or another country at preference because of the experience that they're having right now in terms of transmission. Given that this is moving in different waves through different countries, those people who are at highest need and highest risk need to be vaccinated in every country.

CORNISH: Let's talk about supply. Where does supply need to increase most urgently?

O'BRIEN: At this point, we have only one low-income country that has even begun to distribute vaccine, and that's the country of Guinea with a very small number of doses. We're in a situation where we have 108 million doses of vaccine that have been distributed worldwide, but 75% of those doses have gone to just 10 countries. And that means that there are many, many, many countries that either have very small numbers of doses or no doses at all.

CORNISH: But given the difficulty of access for poorer nations, does that become all theoretical? Like, if you can't even get the basic vaccine out, how are you able to get a grip on the spread?

O'BRIEN: Well, I really want to sort of correct the idea that poor countries can't get the vaccine out. First of all, we've been doing and supporting countries to introduce new vaccines for decades. Frankly, low-income countries have a very strong experience of rolling out vaccines. What they really need right now is they need the supply. So the countries are ready.

CORNISH: Is there a country that is doing this well or poised to do it well that you think could be a model?

O'BRIEN: That's an interesting question because we're working really carefully with countries that are in this first wave of deployment to understand what lessons they're learning about how to do this and how to do it well. We certainly have been having conversations with the U.K., with Israel. We've learned some innovative things already. You know, we've heard about trying to get six doses out of the Pfizer vial and how that can be done, which actually stretches supply. There have been ideas around giving one dose and waiting up to six weeks - and recommendations in some countries longer - so that the current supply can be stretched to get at least more people with one dose in while we wait for additional supply to get that second dose in.

CORNISH: What are you going to be looking for in the next couple of days and weeks? What are you going to be watching for that we should also be watching for to understand how distribution is going?

O'BRIEN: What we're going to be doing is really focusing on getting started with vaccination in every country. We have a goal of, in the first hundred days of 2021, getting vaccine into every country so that those highest-priority groups can start to be vaccinated. Our eye's on the ball for those things. And that's what we're driving for in February and early March.

CORNISH: Dr. Katherine O'Brien, thank you so much for your time.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Audie. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.