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Africa Faces Vaccine Shortage, Challenges Administering Doses

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While wealthy countries are snapping up vaccines, people in some countries in Africa remain largely shut out. So far, they've gotten less than 1% of the world's COVID-19 vaccine supply. But there's another problem. Some of these countries are struggling to administer the few doses they do have. NPR's Nurith Aizenman explains.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Emily Janoch is with the aid group CARE. Since early February, when the first COVID vaccines began trickling into low- and middle-income countries, Janoch has been tracking their use. She's noticed a worrying trend. While some countries like Ghana and Rwanda gave the shots to people almost immediately, quite a number of other countries are taking a while.

EMILY JANOCH: What we found is that a lot of countries have received doses but haven't administered them yet or haven't administered a significant proportion of them yet.

AIZENMAN: Three countries have yet to administer a single dose. Thirteen more report using less than a fourth, almost all in Africa. The reasons for these delays vary. Malawi, for example, was vaccinating at a pretty good clip at first. Amos Zaindi is CARE's country director there. He remembers how, driving around the capital, Lilongwe, he'd see people waiting in long lines outside the vaccination centers.

AMOS ZAINDI: In those days when vaccination was at the peak, you could go to the vaccination center, and it would take you two to three, four hours.

AIZENMAN: Then came the news that several European governments were suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over reports of blood clots in a small number of people. AstraZeneca is the same vaccine Malawi is using. In Malawi, young people in particular were buzzing about this.

ZAINDI: You know, it's a global village where information that is generated in Europe, in the Americas, it generally takes - in a matter of seconds, everyone gets it. And that discouraged many of our young people.

AIZENMAN: Overnight, the lines outside the vaccination centers evaporated. Since then, Europe's regulatory agency has advised that AstraZeneca is still safe and effective and says its benefits far outweigh its risks. But people in Malawi remain so distrustful now. The government recently had to destroy 16,000 doses of vaccine that expired before they could be used.

ZAINDI: I was like, oh, my God, we have just lost 16,000 - you know? - 16,000 lives that could have been saved. It's so painful.

AIZENMAN: But Malawi had at least managed to use about 60% of the doses it had gotten. Even more dire is the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, the government got 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca in early March, held off on using them while waiting for new guidance after the blood clot issue and has now concluded, even though it wants to use the vaccine, it's too late. It will be logistically impossible to give Congo's shots before they expire. Here's CARE's Emily Janoch again.

JANOCH: One of the issues is just sheer investment in the health system, right? It is not a strong health system. It's not one that has had many long-term big investments. And it is hard to mobilize this kind of a massive campaign with a completely new population that typically doesn't get vaccinated in such a short time.

AIZENMAN: Congo says it will hand over much of its vaccine to other countries. South Sudan, in a similar bind, has announced it will be discarding 60,000 doses that have already expired. Janoch says the lesson here is that donor countries and organizations need to put a lot more money into the logistical costs of vaccine delivery in poor countries.

JANOCH: About half of that needs to go to health workers - to their salaries, to supporting them, to training them.

AIZENMAN: A big problem, says Janoch - those expenses were largely left out when the major international organizations that are getting vaccines to poor countries estimated the operational cost. Instead, they mostly focused on raising money for cold chain supplies, and even that far more modest target has barely been funded.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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