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Coronvirus Vaccine Distribution Reveals Global Public Health Inequities


The CDC said this week that B117, the coronavirus variant that originated in the U.K., is now the most common strain in the U.S. Conquering the international spread of the virus is becoming a more complex challenge. But Amnesty International has sharply criticized the world's wealthiest countries for what the human rights organization calls their near monopoly on vaccines.

Dr. Rajiv Shah was the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development when the world was setting up a defense against the Ebola virus. Of course, he's now president of the Rockefeller Foundation and joins us now from New York. Raj, thanks so much for being with us.

RAJIV SHAH: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: There's still so many COVID challenges left in the United States, as we learn every week, including the possibility of a fourth wave. How do you tell Americans they also have to focus on the rest of the world?

SHAH: Well, if we leave ourselves vulnerable anywhere on the planet, we are all vulnerable everywhere on the planet. The reason Ebola was not a tremendously prevalent disease in the United States was because we mobilized a global effort, put U.S. troops, U.S. medical personnel, nonprofit organizations from around the planet in West Africa to beat Ebola where it was. And we want to make sure we have a similar mindset about all being in this together.

It is true that right now, the wealthier nations have, in fact, consumed about 86, 87% of the total number of vaccines that have been distributed. If we leave billions of people out of the immunization drive right now because they live in countries that are lower income and they live in communities that are poorer, we will all be at risk of new variants of COVID coming back and invalidating the tremendous gains we're making as we vaccinate more Americans.

SIMON: You certainly have experience in the hurly-burly world of American politics. How do politicians explain to constituents we've got to work on the rest of the world at the same time we're working on in our country?

SHAH: When we deal with threats to our country, wherever they exist on the planet, we make America safer and stronger. That's true for military and terrorist threats. That's true for climate threats and what that represents. And in this case, that has to be true for health threats. So we have a huge vested interest in making sure we can get vaccines, health care services and support to billions of people who live in 60 or 70 countries that are classified as lower or lower middle income by the World Bank, for example.

SIMON: The Rockefeller Foundation laid out a proposal for ending the pandemic by the end of next year. And as I understand it, it would tap the reserve assets of the International Monetary Fund to help support the efforts in less wealthy nations. How would that work?

SHAH: The reality is we need to get to 70% vaccination rates in order to achieve herd immunity and prevent this threat from being a threat to all of us. And so the Rockefeller Foundation worked with our partners around the world. And we've identified together with the International Monetary Fund a way to expand the use of a relatively technical tool called special drawing rights, sort of a reserve asset that the IMF is able to allocate to nations and then repurpose some of those additional special drawing rights so that we can start investing about $45 billion in the next two years, 20 months, to achieve 70% vaccination rates for COVID-19 everywhere on the planet. We think that kind of a big push is necessary. We think, with this specific proposal, it is affordable. And frankly, we think if we don't make this investment right now, we will be back in an environment where we're looking, again, at spending hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars, as we have, to deal with the consequences of not thinking ahead and making smart investments that protect all of us.

SIMON: You're a man with practical experience. How do you walk into the U.S. Congress, British Parliament, the French Chamber of Deputies and make that argument?

SHAH: I would ask political leaders in all of those environments to just appreciate that we've all suffered together, and the suffering has exacerbated some deep inequities in all societies around the planet. And now it's exacerbating the deep inequity across the globe as a whole. We know that the threat of new variants of COVID-19 coming back and really undermining the value of the vaccines and treatments we have is going to be much, much higher from those lower-income countries that don't get vaccines. So in fact, we're really just protecting ourselves by making sure that this virus does not have populations in which it can replicate at will and continue to thrive.

SIMON: Raj Shah is president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Thank you so much for being with us.

SHAH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.