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A Look At Global COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The historic effort to vaccinate the world against the coronavirus has, in effect, turned the entire globe into an experiment. And results are already coming in. We're finding that when it comes to getting shots into people's arms, politics matter - so does pricing and national hubris or complacency. We're joined now by three of NPR's international correspondents who are watching what's working and what isn't. First, want to say hello to Rob Schmitz in Berlin.

Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, welcome back.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: Daniel, I want to start with you in Jerusalem. You're seeing two very different pictures - one in Israel and, of course, the other in Palestinian territories. Starting with Israel, it's been an example for a good part of the world, right? They've vaccinated a good portion of their population.

ESTRIN: Oh, they've vaccinated a bigger percentage of their population than any other country in the world. About 20% of Israelis have been vaccinated so far. The majority of Israelis over 60 years old have already been vaccinated. And Israel says Pfizer has actually expedited shipments of the vaccine to Israel. And so I asked, how did Israel get this stock? I asked the Israeli health minister, Yuli Edelstein, today. First, Israel paid a high premium for these vaccines, but that's not it. He said Israel has also made an offer to Pfizer.

YULI EDELSTEIN: We said to Pfizer and to other companies, too, that the moment they give us the vaccine, we'll be able to vaccinate at the speed they've never heard of.

ESTRIN: And so he says Pfizer is interested to see a country vaccinated very quickly, to start opening up the economy, to show how it can be done. And Israel is also giving Pfizer access to its medical data of the millions of Israelis who are getting vaccinated, and already Israel says that that data proves itself. It's showing signs, for instance, that the COVID vaccine can begin to work two weeks after getting the first shot.

CORNISH: So why is it not the case for Palestinians - right? - in areas under Israeli control? What's going on there?

ESTRIN: Well, there's a dispute about that. U.N. experts, international rights groups, Palestinian officials - they all say Israel has an obligation as the occupying power in the West Bank to ensure that Palestinians get access to vaccines. And, you know, Palestinians have been struggling with this virus, too, of course. Israel had been under pressure especially to vaccinate Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The health minister told me that they would start doing that next week. But Israel is not providing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza vaccines.

And so Palestinian officials are just now managing to sign deals for vaccines from Russia, from some other companies, the World Health Organization. Those vaccines will only arrive in a few months. So this whole situation really reflects what's happening around the world because you've got some governments with the power, the influence, the money to get in the front of the line, and then you have poorer areas without the resources. They're left behind. And you see that contrast very starkly when it comes to the Israelis and the Palestinians.

CORNISH: Rob, in Germany, we're hearing that the vaccine has become a major political controversy. What's the fight over?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Germans are fighting over how slowly they think their government and the EU is moving on this front. Before the holiday season, they saw a video of Americans and Israelis and Brits getting the shots, but it took the EU a few more weeks to approve those same vaccinations. Yesterday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn was defending the process, saying the reason for the slow rollout is due to, what he said, a global shortage of supply of the vaccine. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS SPAHN: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Audie, he's asking for people to be patient and that eventually there will be enough vaccines for everyone. And as it stands today, he says they will likely be able to offer the vaccine to everyone by the summer. Suffice it to say that German media and politicians here are still complaining. So it's been quite a year for Germany. Early on in the pandemic, the country was seen as a model for how to manage the virus, and it went into the autumn with a little hubris on how it performed. But now we're seeing some cracks in that model image.

CORNISH: Stepping back on the continent, if the EU is supposed to be coordinating the European vaccination effort, can you describe how that's actually working?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, so the EU is in charge of purchasing the vaccines for its 27 member states, and it made its orders back in the summer by choosing kind of a range of vaccines from different companies. Some of those companies are not finished with the approval process yet, so that's why we're seeing a slow rollout.

Now, EU countries are in charge of distributing and administering the vaccines, and that's where we're seeing the differences in the rollout on a local basis. Countries in Europe that were slammed hard at the start are now ahead in vaccinating, and that includes the U.K. - now officially out of the EU, of course. It rushed through its approvals. Italy and Spain are also slightly ahead in their vaccination programs. Meanwhile, in other countries like Germany, people are stuck blaming the EU's slow bureaucracy for what they see as a slow rollout.

CORNISH: Philip Reeves, there's another big political fight over vaccines, of course, where you are, in Brazil. What's going on?

REEVES: A lot of what's happening here is about the president, Jair Bolsonaro. He is what you might call vaccine resistant. He's repeatedly said he's not going to get vaccinated. He's come out against mandatory vaccines. He once said in a tweet that they're for dogs. And he's raised unspecified concerns about vaccine safety. And Brazil's medical community is very frustrated and very upset about this. They say that Brazil has a proud history of successful nationwide immunization programs - for example, against smallpox. But with COVID, you know, it's lagging behind, and they're accusing Bolsonaro of encouraging people not to get vaccinated, just as deaths and cases are soaring again in Brazil.

However, Bolsonaro's health ministry does now have a national plan. And government regulators haven't actually approved any vaccines yet here, but they're expected to decide on two of these this weekend. And if they give the go-ahead, officials say they hope to start vaccinating Brazil in about a week.

CORNISH: Brazil is second only to the U.S. in number of coronavirus deaths. More than 200,000 hospitals are full. Are the country's vaccine advocates still able to move ahead?

REEVES: Yeah. But, you know, it's chaotic here and tangled up with politics. I mean, right now there is an extraordinary race going on. The Bolsonaro federal government is promoting the AstraZeneca vaccine. The trouble is, they don't have any, so they're sending a plane to India to pick up 2 million doses. That plane returns on Saturday. And they're hoping that AstraZeneca will indeed be approved for emergency use the next day and that they'll be ready to roll.

The other player in this race is Bolsonaro's big political rival, the governor of the mighty Brazilian state of Sao Paolo, Joao Doria. He's teamed up with the Chinese to produce the vaccine CoronaVac. They've already got 6 million doses of this here in Brazil. And that is also awaiting approval from regulators this weekend. So the question is, who gets their vaccine out first? Bolsonaro's made this political scrap even more unsavory by pouring scorn on CoronaVac. He took another swipe at CoronaVac this week after test results emerged showing that while that vaccine is very effective against severe and moderate cases, if you factor in all infections, including very light symptoms, its effectiveness rate came out at only just over 50%.

SCHMITZ: And, Audie, this is Rob in Berlin, and I want to jump in here. You know, I think it's important to remember here that this virus is far from its final phase, as we've heard from Phil. So even the countries that are seemingly ahead of the rest may soon see problems as their populations begin to mix again, thinking this is all over when it is clearly not. And as we've seen, politics are, of course, a big part of this. And what's key is that everyone has to stay on top of this.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin, Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Gentlemen, thank you for your time.

REEVES: You're welcome.

ESTRIN: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYE SONG, "ONE OF THOSE SUMMER DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.