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Examining COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts Around The World

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How soon you have access to a COVID vaccine depends, in part, on what country you live in. We have a survey this morning of several countries. Vaccines are, of course, spreading now across the United States, though a bit more slowly than Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expected a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX AZAR: By the end of December, we believe there will be enough vaccine distributed to get a first dose vaccination for 20 million people.

INSKEEP: At the start of this week, it was more like 2.1 million. In the U.K., officials have now authorized an additional vaccine, though concerns about it may slow its approval in the United States. Now let's hear from three other nations, Israel, Pakistan and the Philippines. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. And NPR's Julie McCarthy covers the Philippines. Hello to all of you.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hello.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And, Daniel, we'll start in Israel. How are vaccinations going there?

ESTRIN: Well, so far, Israel is outpacing every other country in the world in vaccinations per capita. It is a major drive seven days a week, even on the Sabbath, which is unusual. They're starting with people over 60. But even younger Israelis are getting appointments already. And the goal is to vaccinate a fourth of Israel citizens by the end of next month, including all of the elderly. And this, Steve, is doable. Israel is small, just under 9 million citizens. Half a million have already received the Pfizer vaccine. And Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, says Israel may be the first to conquer the virus.

INSKEEP: What about Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza, which is in its own kind of status?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel is not providing vaccines to them. Israel is the occupying power in the West Bank. Israel and Egypt blockade Gaza. But Israel says the Palestinian Authority is the one that's responsible for vaccinating their own people. Palestinian officials and aid groups both say that both sides have responsibility. Of course, Palestinians and Israelis interact. So it's in everyone's interest for everyone to be vaccinated. But at the moment, the Palestinian health ministry is on their own. I spoke with them. They are scrambling to try to buy vaccines.

At the moment, the only assurances they have is that they're going to get some vaccines through the World Health Organization's program COVAX, which is giving vaccines to poorer countries. But at first, the Palestinians are only going to have enough vaccines from them for 3% of the Palestinian population. So 3% compared to 25% of Israelis.

INSKEEP: Now let's go to Pakistan, which is not a small country, one of the most populous nations on Earth. And Diaa Hadid is there. What's the timeline where you are?

HADID: Right. It looks, actually, pretty fast for a developing country. So Pakistan aims to start vaccinating an estimated 10 million health care workers starting in early April. That's more than the entire population of Israel. They've purchased the Pfizer vaccine for that cohort. But it needs to be kept below freezing. Pakistan doesn't have the resources to do that. So a health worker here tells me that the World Health Organization will provide the dry ice they need to ship it out. But here's where it gets interesting. Wealthy Pakistanis will be able to purchase the vaccine individually starting from the second quarter of 2021, because that's when the government will allow private companies to import the vaccine for sale.

Now, not many other companies - other countries I know are doing this. But in Pakistan, the health sector is really under-resourced. So this relieves the government of taking care of its wealthy citizens. As for everyone else, they'll have to wait for the second or even third quarter of next year. And that's when they're waiting for 88 million doses of a Chinese vaccine to come in. That still won't cover the entire population. But they're hoping by then that they'll secure deals with other companies. So this process won't take a few months. It'll likely take a year or even more.

INSKEEP: Already seeing the difference - the dramatic difference - in timelines between Israel, which is a matter of weeks to get a quarter of the population, and you're saying in April is when they'll get 10 million doses in Pakistan. Let's bring the Philippines into this picture now with Julie McCarthy. What's the plan there?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's later still, Steve. The Philippines, first of all, is going for herd immunity. It's vaccinating some 60 million rather than the entire 110 million population. And the rollout won't be until May of 2021, front liners likely sooner. There's a big dispute about whether the health ministry fumbled a deal with Pfizer that would have landed the vaccine in the country earlier. But the government regrouped. The Philippines is on the verge of securing 80 million doses of vaccines, all from Western manufacturers, including Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. That's a big deal because President Rodrigo Duterte wanted Russian and Chinese vaccines. But China hasn't disclosed data from its clinical trials. And the Philippine FDA wants that. And there's also no word on any deal with COVAX.

INSKEEP: What is COVAX?

MCCARTHY: COVAX is, really, the world's only mechanism to make sure that all countries get access to doses for their front liners and their most vulnerable people. It's about equity. When the rich countries have laid claim to so much of the vaccine, COVAX pools resources to buy and distribute a portfolio of vaccines for low-income countries so that they don't lose by betting on a single vaccine that may fail. It focuses on the world's 92 poorest countries. And it's already got commitments for 2 billion - that's with a B - doses of vaccines. That's pretty impressive. Benjamin Schreiber with UNICEF is one of the leads on distributing the vaccine. He says giving access to everyone is sound medically and morally.

BENJAMIN SCHREIBER: There are, in my view, clear ethical reasons why we do need to make sure that also countries that are less wealthy do have access to these vaccines. And there is a huge return on investment on this.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's COVAX. In the little bit of time we have left, guys, I want to just ask about receptiveness to the vaccine. Daniel - a sentence or two - start with you, are Israelis eager to accept the vaccine as real?

ESTRIN: Most are. But there are lower numbers among ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews and Palestinian Arab villages in Israel. Both of those communities skeptical and also not enough vaccines getting to the Arab villages right now.

INSKEEP: Diaa, what about Pakistan?

HADID: Well, here, we've had militants who've killed dozens of polio vaccinators over the past decade, including two in January. So health officials here say that they're already worried about the response to the COVID-19 vaccine because there's been so much misinformation building up around it already. They're already trying to marshal clerics to help with vaccine acceptance.

INSKEEP: Julie, just a couple of words.

MCCARTHY: Well, a few years back, children died after receiving a dengue vaccine. And many Filipinos are nervous. But support for a COVID-19 vaccine is creeping up.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much.

That's Julie McCarthy, who covers the Philippines, Daniel Estrin, who covers Israel, and Diaa Hadid, who covers Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.