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WHO Says U.S. Should Share Vaccines Globally Before Vaccinating Kids

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The situation in India grows ever more dire. Yesterday, the country reported 4,529 COVID-19 deaths. It was the highest single-day death toll in the world since the start of the pandemic. The previous record was held by the U.S. Experts believe that a more transmissible COVID-19 variant, which was first discovered in India, is driving the surge there. And it's spreading to other parts of the world. Nearly 50 countries at this point have identified cases involving this virus mutation, including the U.S. I spoke with Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization about the dangers of the variant found in India and global vaccine distribution.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: One of the virus variants that has been circulating is this B1617, which is a virus variant first identified in India. This was classified as a variant of interest, which means that it had some mutations that could confer it to behave differently in terms of spread, in terms of disease severity. As more information became available of this lineage, we learned that this virus has some characteristics that confer it to transmit more easily. So we have recently reclassified it as a variant of concern.

MARTIN: Calling this a variant of concern, does the classification itself change anything substantively about the ways you would attack it?

VAN KERKHOVE: No, it doesn't, actually. It just heightens our awareness that the virus is changing. And the big worry that we have are any of these virus variants that are being detected - if they change enough that our public health and social measures don't work, that's where we become really, really concerned. The evidence that we have, the public health and social measures work. The diagnostics work. The therapeutics work. The vaccines work.

MARTIN: I think it's worth underscoring what you just said. The current vaccines available to combat COVID-19 work against this variant.

VAN KERKHOVE: That is correct. From the information that we have, the vaccines work against all of the variants of concern.

MARTIN: If we could talk more specifically about India, why is it only spreading there now in such deadly degrees?

VAN KERKHOVE: Well, it has been spreading in India. It's been spreading around the world. The last few weeks, we've had the highest recorded number of cases to date. Seventeen months into a pandemic that is really, really worrying. And it's really worrying because we know what to do. We know how to control COVID. We know how to stop the spread. But it's a combination of factors that I think are responsible for the latest upsurge. The first is that we do have virus variants that are circulating that are more transmissible.

We also have increased social mixing in large parts of India, some in small gatherings and some in large gatherings. And if you increase the number of contacts that you come in contact with throughout your day and viruses present, it could spread more easily - so increased social mixing. And lastly, we don't have enough vaccine rolling out across the world. So the uneven and inequitable distribution of vaccines around the world, plus the virus variants, plus the relaxation of public health and social measures, plus increased social mixing, this is a very dangerous combination. And we're not just seeing this in India. We're seeing this in a number of countries around the world.

MARTIN: You mentioned that disparity between the countries that have plenty of vaccine supply and high vaccination rates and other countries that have had a hard time getting their hands on vaccine and rolling it out. If the gap between the haves and the have nots on the vaccine front continues to grow, is everybody more at risk from future variants?

VAN KERKHOVE: Yes. We are all at risk as the pandemic continues. And until all of us are safe, no one is safe. We need more even distribution of vaccine around the world.

MARTIN: Does that mean you would prefer that the United States - even though the Biden administration just announced an additional 20 million doses going abroad, you would prefer that the U.S. send even more vaccine instead of working on a vaccine for people 12 and under?

VAN KERKHOVE: Well, the question becomes, how do we best use the vaccines that are available right now around the world? It's a very difficult question. But we can't have groups that are at lower risk being vaccinated before those who are most at risk caring for COVID patients in other parts of the world. So we would ask for both to happen so that some of the vaccines in those high-income countries be shared. And we're very grateful for the donation from the United States. But really, we need to think about how we are going to get out of this pandemic.

MARTIN: Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove with the Health Emergencies Programme at the WHO. Thank you so much for your time.

VAN KERKHOVE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.