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America's Vaccine Rollout May Be Dysfunctional, But Latin America's Is Disastrous

ElizabethAstete.jpg
Cancilleria de Peru
VACUNAGATE Elizabeth Astete, who was forced to resign as Peru's Foreign Minister last week after saying she took COVID-19 vaccine doses reserved for others because she 'couldn't afford the luxury' of getting sick.

Due to limited resources, delayed start-ups, chronic shortages — and official scandals — only a fraction of Latin America and the Caribbean has been inoculated.

COVID-19 vaccine distribution has admittedly been dysfunctional in the U.S. But the situation in Latin America and the Caribbean has so far been disastrous.

The region has seen an inordinately high number of COVID cases and deaths; and now its vaccine rollout is plagued by delays, shortages – and scandals.

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WLRN's Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett about the chaos — but also the apparent success of a certain island country just to the south of Florida.

Here are excerpts from their conversation:

DIMATTEI: Tim, how badly behind are the vaccination numbers in Latin America and the Caribbean so far compared to the U.S.?

PADGETT: Here’s a good metric: According to Oxford University's ourworldindata.org, the U.S. has administered about 18 vaccine doses per 100 people. In Brazil, that number plunges to fewer than three doses per 100 people. And five of Brazil’s largest cities —including Rio de Janeiro — have just had to suspend vaccinations because of sudden shortages.

Mexico and Argentina have administered only one dose per 100 people; Peru and Panama, one-third of a dose per 100 people. Colombia didn’t even receive its first vaccine doses until last week and it just started giving shots in its three largest cities on Thursday.

READ MORE: Vaccine Race: COVAX Launching Millions of Doses for Latin America and Caribbean

So why are these countries – even the largest, Brazil and Mexico – struggling so badly to procure vaccines and get them into people’s arms?

The main reason is resources. Developing countries usually can’t produce their own vaccines, and as in anything else, they're at the mercy of international markets. It’s very hard for them to access the top vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.

As a result, many Latin American countries have had to turn to cheaper but still effective vaccines like Russia’s Sputnik or China’s Coronavac (although there are growing questions now about the latter's efficacy). But those producers can’t keep up with the demand.

A program led in part by the World Health Organization – called COVAX – is supposed to help alleviate this situation. It’s pooling developing countries together to give them more purchasing power for vaccines like AstraZeneca. And this month COVAX is starting to deliver 35 million AstraZeneca doses to Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s a good start, but it’s got a long way to go.

If we don’t help poorer countries vaccinate their people, that still leaves richer countries vulnerable to the virus. You don’t end this global pandemic by inoculating just Americans and Europeans.

What can the U.S. and the rest of the developed world do to get Latin America and the Caribbean more vaccine doses and more distribution help?

Well, I just mentioned COVAX. Under President Trump, the U.S. did not contribute to that project because — as we know — the U.S. cut ties with the World Health Organization. The Biden Administration is now pledging $4 billion to COVAX; other developed countries like France are upping their own COVAX contributions.

The reasons are as practical as they are ethical. Small Caribbean countries, for example, can’t restart the tourism they depend on until the pandemic is under control. And remember this: If we don’t help poorer countries vaccinate their people, that still leaves richer countries vulnerable to the virus. You don’t end this global pandemic by inoculating just Americans and Europeans.

DOSE EMBEZZLING

But you mentioned another big problem is sheer official misconduct in many of these countries — especially in Peru. What’s happening there?

A big scandal they’re calling “Vacunagate,” or “Vaccine-gate.” Remember I said before Peru has administered only one-third of a vaccine dose per 100 people? It turns out almost 500 high-level government officials essentially embezzled more than 3,000 doses that were intended for research trials. Former President Martín Vizcarra was one of them. He claimed he was part of the trial, but the trial scientists said: No, he wasn’t.

Even worse: Peruvian Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete said she grabbed some of those doses because “she could not afford the luxury of becoming ill.” She was forced to resign last week. Argentina’s health minister was fired over the weekend because he was caught giving out preferential and unauthorized doses to cronies.

CubaCOVIDVaccine.jpg
Yamil Lage
A Cuban biopharma technician gathers doses of the Sovereign 2 vaccine Cuba hopes to use to vaccinate its population — and perhaps paying tourists.

Is there any good news on the region’s vaccination front?

One bright spot is Chile. It has administered about 13 doses per 100 people. But there’s also a positive story in the Caribbean. India has begun donating vaccines to small countries in the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM. Barbados, for example, just got 100,000 AstraZeneca doses. India says it expects to send almost 600,000 doses to the Caribbean in total.

This is admittedly being called “vaccine diplomacy.” But as I mentioned, until richer countries like the U.S. step up more to help poorer countries access vaccines, this sort of gesture will be very popular.

And speaking of the Caribbean — it turns out Cuba is having success developing its own vaccine?

It seems so. Cuba is an economic basket case, but it still has an advanced biopharmaceutical industry. It’s announced it will begin the final phase of testing of its Soberana Dos, or Sovereign 2 vaccine next week. We'll see.

Cuba says it too will donate surplus doses to other countries. And it’s also apparently telling tourists they can come get their vaccine shots there, as if it were part of some travel package. Some say that's rather cynical on the Cuban government's part. Either way, I guess it gives “vaccine tourism” a whole new meaning.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.