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Uncertainty Has Made It Hard For Countries Getting COVAX Vaccine Doses To Prepare

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two-point-six billion - that is how many doses of COVID-19 vaccines have made it into the arms of people worldwide, many of them in the wealthiest nations. Meanwhile, many low- and middle-income countries are still stuck without vaccines. NPR's Will Stone reports on the waiting game.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: As doctors in the U.S. were celebrating their second COVID shots, Dr. Marcela Lazo Escalante says her father, a pediatrician in Peru, was going door to door seeing patients. Eventually, he caught the virus.

MARCELA LAZO ESCALANTE: He transmitted infections to my brother, and both were to the ICU unit. And they didn't made it.

STONE: That was in February, and now Peru has the most deaths per capita from COVID-19 in the world.

LAZO ESCALANTE: All people have a story of death from COVID in Peru - everyone.

STONE: Yet even now, less than 10% of Peru's more than 30 million people are fully vaccinated. In African countries, vaccination coverage tends to be even lower, and infections are soaring.

STEVEN NERI: I mean, we're really getting crushed.

STONE: Steven Neri lives in Namibia and runs public health programs in Africa for the humanitarian group Project Hope.

NERI: Oxygen is in short supply. In many of the countries, ICU beds are in short supply IF not all being full. And the vaccine isn't available.

STONE: It reminds Neri of what he saw there during the early years of HIV/AIDS. Africans could get testing and counseling but not medications, so they're left waiting for help from more affluent countries.

NERI: And it's not working.

STONE: This could finally be changing. The U.S. plans to send half a billion doses to countries in need starting in August. Those shots will go through COVAX, the global vaccine distribution program. Despite its ambitions, COVAX has only delivered about 90 million doses worldwide. Supplies are expected to ramp up in the fall, but there's still a lot of uncertainty. Gian Gandhi with UNICEF, one of the groups behind COVAX, says that's making it hard for countries to prepare.

GIAN GANDHI: Without knowing that the doses are going to be there, they are understandably reticent to use the limited resources to prime the pump.

STONE: All the logistics that need to be in place - training health care workers, setting up the cold chain, getting publicity so people know shots are there.

GANDHI: There's been a lot of focus on the supply of vaccines, and actually right now we need to sort of turn our attention more to the more mundane things.

STONE: Otherwise, he says a glut of vaccines could arrive, and countries may not be able to use them all. And there are already some examples of countries returning or destroying shots. But the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says these concerns are not only overblown but distract from the real problem at hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: There is no vaccine. You can't even talk about delivery or absorption capacity when there is no vaccine.

STONE: Since the fall, Tedros says COVAX has worked closely with countries on how exactly they will give out the shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TEDROS: What I would like to assure those who are prepared to give vaccines is we have done our homework.

STONE: And the WHO says countries in the Global South have a lot of experience and success vaccinating against other infectious diseases. Dr. Jarbas Barbosa is assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization.

JARBAS BARBOSA: The countries in Latin America, for instance - when they receive the vaccine, they are deploying the vaccine very, very fast.

STONE: The WHO also says problems of vaccine hesitancy may be overblown. Over in Uganda, Elijah Okeyo with the nonprofit International Rescue Committee says it was hard to get people to show up for a shot during the spring. But now...

ELIJAH OKEYO: Uptake is not a problem. You walk into different facilities, you find crowds of people looking for vaccine.

STONE: He hopes they will soon have a place to find them.

Will Stone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "THE MINING DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.