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As U.S. Vaccine Rollout Speeds Up, Inequality Stunts Progress Worldwide

MICHEL MARTIN (HOST): This week, President Biden said there would be enough COVID vaccines available for every adult American by the end of May, even if it may take longer before everyone who wants a shot can get one. We wondered how vaccine rollouts are going elsewhere around the world as more and more countries get going on campaigns to inoculate their populations. For more on that, we're joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, welcome.

FRANK LANGFITT (BYLINE): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Eyder Peralta in Cape Town, South Africa, welcome.

EYDER PERALTA (BYLINE): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: And Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, welcome to you.

CARRIE KAHN (BYLINE): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you, Carrie, 'cause Mexico seems to be doing fairly badly in terms of vaccination rates. Tell us what's happening.

KAHN: Right now, we're about 2% of the population here vaccinated. For comparison, the U.S. is about 25%. It's been a very slow rollout. Even if you compare to other countries in Latin America, Mexico is low on the list. And remember that Mexico has the third-highest death toll from COVID in the world. We're edging toward 200,000 dead.

Back in December, right before Christmas, it was a lot more optimistic. Mexico's plans to vaccinate - you know, they just were full of options. They had all these presale contracts with all these different manufacturers. Mexico is also volunteering for different Phase 3 trials, hoping to get in good with manufacturers. They're packaging vaccines here. But then in January, everything dried up, especially - the Pfizer vaccine just stopped coming here.

It's back up and running. This week, I was out at a huge sports concert complex. It's turned into a vaccine center in Mexico City.

UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR (VENDOR): (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: There were vendors out in front selling face masks, shields and gels. It was - and long lines of elderly filing in to get vaccines from a brand-new shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia. And I talked to 81-year-old Domingo Blancartes (ph). And he got his last week, and he was waiting for his wife to come out from getting hers. And he was happy. He said it made him feel safer.

DOMINGO BLANCARTES (GENERAL PUBLIC): (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

KAHN: And he also added - laughing and he was tugging on his big red face mask - that he was finally able to get this dang thing off. He just wanted to get rid of that mask. But - so vaccines are again trickling in. But if the government's numbers of expected arrivals in March come through, it'll only be about 9 million more people vaccinated. But the government's estimates and promises haven't materialized in the past. So there's a lot of skepticism here.

MARTIN: So, Eyder, you know, more broadly, we know that there's just been an imbalance between access to wealthier countries and access to vaccines from less wealthy countries or poorer countries. So broadly, across Africa, could you just describe the situation?

PERALTA: I mean, so these past two weeks - they've actually been really good for African countries. COVAX, which is a WHO-backed program that is distributing free vaccines to poorer countries, that has really ramped up. Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya all got their first deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and they have begun vaccinating health workers. And, you know, this is really good, positive news. But this is going to be a really long process because countries are just not getting big numbers of vaccines.

MARTIN: So how are people reacting to that? I know that it's a hard, you know, questions you're talking about, you know, 50-plus countries. And so let's just talk about where you are in South Africa. How - you know, South Africa has been hit particularly hard by the virus, too. How are people reacting to the way this is being handled there? What is their perception of how the government's handling it? How do they feel about it?

PERALTA: Yeah, I mean, look. So South Africa - as you said, it's been hit really tough. They've had way more cases and way more deaths than any other African country. And as you might know, they bought a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. And the day after it arrived, scientists revealed a study that found that it did not work against the predominant variant in South Africa. And South Africa pivoted. And they got some Johnson & Johnson vaccines. And they have begun to vaccinate some of their health workers.

I was at one of those vaccination sites in Johannesburg. And what I heard was absolute relief. I spoke to a COVID ward nurse Julia Macarenge (ph). And she says every day, she saw people die. And she worried that she would take COVID back to her family. But here she was. She was about to take a vaccine. Let's listen.

JULIA MACARENGE (COVID WARD NURSE): But now I'm here.

PERALTA: Yeah (laughter).

MACARENGE: I'm here. I'm happy, you know?

PERALTA: You're still here.

MACARENGE: And I'm still here. And I'll be here for ever and ever.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: You have no plans of going anywhere.

So, I mean, that was an incredibly emotional moment. But today, I spoke to Dr. Shabir Madhi, who ran the study that found that the AstraZeneca vaccine wasn't really effective against the South African variant, and he issued a warning. He said he's really worried that if vaccines are rolled out too slowly in - on the African continent, it may give the virus an opportunity to mutate again and prove other vaccines ineffective. And he says that what South Africa has taught the world is that this virus, vaccine or not, is likely going to be with us for a long time to come.

MARTIN: So let's go to the U.K. now, where, Frank, you have been telling us that the British government has been widely criticized for its handling of the pandemic. So far, there's a death toll of, you know, more than 100,000 people. So how's the vaccine rollout going?

LANGFITT: Yeah, actually going extremely well. And it's so interesting to hear from Eyder and Carrie how different the situation is between these parts of the globe. Here, more than 20 million people have gotten first doses. That's about 30% of the population. And the reasons are, for one thing, obviously, the United Kingdom is a rich country. That's a big difference. The other thing is that they got way ahead of this. They did sort of planning that they didn't do before. If you go back in June, they ordered a hundred million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, not even knowing if it would work. And then six months later, the U.K. approved it.

Matt Hancock, he's the health secretary here. He said some inspiration for planning came from the 2011 Hollywood movie "Contagion," where there was a scramble for the vaccine. And the other thing is that they're only giving first doses right now, and that's just to sort of extend it as much as possible.

MARTIN: Wow. So we've been hearing a lot about the supply problems. We've been hearing a lot about sort of the - you know, the logistics of getting it to people and - but are most people willing to take the vaccine, Frank?

LANGFITT: The vast majority of people here are. It is an 80% white country, and most people who are white are going to take it. But there has been a problem in terms of minority groups being resistant. More than 70% of Black people here are hesitant. More than 40% of Pakistani and Bangladeshis. These, of course, as in the States, have been among the hardest-hit communities. One strategy has been actually turning mosques into vaccination centers, using trusted faith leaders. And we were up just last week in Birmingham, where an imam and National Health Service workers were sort of countering disinformation about the vaccine. And in the parking lot, I ran into a woman named Mona Qaid. She's not a member of the mosque, but she's a Muslim woman who lives in the neighborhood. And this is what she said.

MONA QAID (GENERAL PUBLIC): My mom is elderly, and she was worried about it in the beginning. She was refusing to have it.

LANGFITT: Really?

QAID: Yeah because she was listening to the gossip of it might kill you. But then when she heard 15 million people had it and they were OK, she decided to do it. But there's a lot of rumors going around.

LANGFITT: Were you also skeptical about the vaccine?

QAID: No because I read the facts.

MARTIN: Wow. So you know what? This makes me want to ask Carrie and Eyder about that where they are. Carrie, maybe you go first. Is a similar issue arising where you are in Mexico? I mean, are there sort of countervailing narratives going around discouraging people from getting vaccine?

KAHN: There are reports of some places, a few Indigenous communities in the south that have refused to let the vaccine. But Mexico has a long history of successful national vaccination campaigns. There was some concern over the quick approval the government gave to the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Many wanted the government to wait for regulators in the U.S., Canada or the EU to approve it.

At that vaccine clinic I went to this week in Mexico City, where health workers were applying the Sputnik, most everybody I talked to - they had no qualms about it. I spoke with 72-year-old Lucia Rodriguez Paredes (ph), who - she was rubbing her left arm a bit after she got her shots that hurt a bit. But she wasn't concerned about getting the Russian one; she was just concerned about getting one at all, saying the whole process in one year just seemed too quick for her and gave her pause.

LUCIA RODRIGUEZ PAREDES (GENERAL PUBLIC): (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But she said she thought it would be irresponsible not to get the vaccine, and she wanted to be an example for her daughter. She wanted to be the guinea pig, she said pretty much. I asked her daughters if they would get it.

ANA MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

KAHN: You can hear they're just laughing. That was Ana Maldonado (ph). She's 39. She just said, she doesn't even have to worry about it 'cause she probably wouldn't be ready - they wouldn't have the vaccines for - until next year. And then her sister jumped in, who's 42, said, "ah, it'll be in seven years until I get it." They are both very critical of the government's handling of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout.

MARTIN: Wow. And, Eyder, what about where you are? Is there a vaccine hesitancy there, too?

PERALTA: So much, Michel. I mean, I have heard every single conspiracy theory under the sun on the streets of Johannesburg, on the streets of Cape Town, everything from chips being injected into your body to population control. And the government is really trying super hard to combat this by explaining the science.

They get on national television, and they explain all of their studies and how they reached a level of confidence with the vaccines. But even that has given some of the health workers pause because they look at the efficacy rates, which are much lower here in South Africa than, you know, in places like the United States. And they think, you know, will it work? I heard, you know, health workers say like, we don't know if it'll work, but we have to set a good example. So they took it.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Cape Town, Carrie Kahn in Mexico City and Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you all so much for talking with us.

LANGFITT: You're welcome. Great to do it.

PERALTA: Thank you, Michel.

KAHN: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this report, we incorrectly said that Kenya has a population of 500 million. Its population is 50 million.]

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 7, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
In a previous version of this report, we incorrectly said that Kenya has a population of 500 million. Its population is 50 million.