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Experts Warn Lag In Global Vaccinations Could Lead To Dangerous Variants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It sometimes feels as if someone gave an all-clear signal for the pandemic. Many Americans are emerging from isolation and resuming at least some of their old routines. Though we're just getting started on vaccinating kids and nobody under 12 has a shot, the CDC says 50% of adults 18 and over are vaccinated now. But for much of the rest of the world, the picture could hardly be more different. Health experts are warning the consequences of that could be severe for people in those countries and also for the United States. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Amanda Glassman is executive vice president of the Washington think tank Center for Global Development. She says when it comes to COVID, she's seeing a worrying trend.

AMANDA GLASSMAN: The leaders of the countries that are making a lot of progress on vaccination seem to be really underestimating the anger, frustration and fear that the rest of the world is feeling.

AIZENMAN: Europe is the only region that comes close to U.S. vaccination levels, with nearly 1 in 5 adults there fully protected. In the Middle East, South America and East Asia, only about 1 in 10 adults have gotten all their doses. In South Asia, the share drops to less than 5%, and in sub-Saharan Africa, less than 1% are fully vaccinated. The U.S. and a few other wealthy countries bought up so much of the early vaccine supply, other nations were all but boxed out. Now, for the U.S...

GLASSMAN: This is the single most important foreign policy, security and otherwise issue for the next year and a half, at least, until we get this vaccination job done.

AIZENMAN: A key reason - variants. Mutations that allow the coronavirus to spread way faster have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Brazil. Variants appear to be a major driver of the surge that's devastating India. Last week, daily deaths there reached the highest level of any country over the entirety of the pandemic. And Glassman says similar catastrophes could soon hit other countries.

GLASSMAN: Nepal obviously stands out.

AIZENMAN: Over the last month, cases in Nepal have skyrocketed. Same with Sri Lanka.

GLASSMAN: I'm also really worried about Indonesia, Bangladesh - you know, an enormous population.

AIZENMAN: There's even been small but sudden upswings in Taiwan and Vietnam, which took aggressive precautions at the start of the pandemic and until recently had almost completely insulated themselves from COVID. Tom Frieden is a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who now leads Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit aimed at stopping epidemics. Frieden says the spikes in Taiwan and Vietnam in particular suggest that even in the most disciplined countries...

TOM FRIEDEN: There's only so long you can hold your breath. In terms of restricting activities, keeping people from congregating, the temptation is to let down your guard, and what the variants are doing is they're making that much riskier.

AIZENMAN: Governments have much less time to react. Frieden says, whereas it used to take about three to four weeks for an initial rise in cases to turn into explosive spread...

FRIEDEN: Now it's more like a week or two. Variants basically give us a shorter fuse.

AIZENMAN: And that's especially worrying for Africa, where many nations lack the resources to detect new cases before it would be too late. The good news is that so far most of the vaccines against COVID, particularly Pfizer and Moderna, appear to offer protection against the variants.

FRIEDEN: But that could change. The more uncontrolled spread there is anywhere in the world, the more risk there is that a variant that's even worse could emerge.

AIZENMAN: And so, he says, U.S. officials need to share more vaccines with other countries not out of charity, but as one of the most urgent steps they can take to protect Americans. If there's explosive, uncontrolled spread anywhere, says Frieden, it's a risk to every place in the world. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "CRYSTAL SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.