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Low income nations need COVID vaccines. Rich countries have millions of unused doses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The world has now seen more than 250 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. That is according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. This milestone comes as wealthy countries have fully vaccinated 65% of their populations. In low-income countries, that number is less than 3%. One thing driving the disparity is that month after month, rich countries keep buying many more doses than they are using. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Countries and pharmaceutical companies have kept key aspects of their vaccine purchase contracts confidential, so it's not public knowledge precisely how much vaccine each country has been bringing in. But Airfinity, an independent London-based analytics company, has been trying to piece this together. First, they've looked into how much COVID vaccine appears to be manufactured every month. Rasmus Bech Hansen is Airfinity's CEO.

RASMUS BECH HANSEN: So we've seen an extraordinary scale-up of production over the last year. We had 1.5 billion vaccines produced last month alone.

AIZENMAN: Much of that vaccine produced by China. But of the rest, about 60% is going to a group of wealthy countries - the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada and Japan. So then Airfinity looked at how much of these doses do those wealthy countries appear to be actually using each month, and how much has been left over? Airfinity's estimate - depending on the country, anywhere from a third to half of the vaccines are going unused. And because this has been happening month after month, the excess has been accumulating.

HANSEN: We're still seeing quite a lot of stockpiling happening.

AIZENMAN: By year's end, Airfinity projects the surplus will have reached 1.2 billion doses. And though this is just an estimate, it's roughly in line with projections by several other analysts. Now, largely due to recent commitments from the U.S., Airfinity projects that by December, about 600 million of these excess doses will be donated to other countries. But Hansen says that could still leave another 600 million doses sitting unused in stockpiles, the largest share of it in the U.S., the rest in other wealthy countries. And he says that would have been enough to meet a key goal for this year set by the World Health Organization to get at least 40% of people in lower-income countries vaccinated.

HANSEN: It seems increasingly unlikely that the world will achieve that goal. We're still at a situation where only 2.5% of low-income population has been vaccinated.

AIZENMAN: It gets worse. Airfinity estimates that about 50 million doses in this rich country stockpile are on the point of expiring before they can be donated.

HANSEN: It is a tragedy.

AIZENMAN: Also, the company's forecasts suggest the unused stockpile will keep growing well into next year, even after accounting for boosters and vaccines for kids. Hansen says this overbuying might have made sense back when there were concerns about how reliably manufacturers could keep pumping out doses, but he maintains that's no longer the case.

HANSEN: Once you know that you have steady supply, you don't actually need to stockpile as much.

AIZENMAN: Andrea Taylor of Duke University's Global Health Innovation Center says one solution is for wealthy countries to transfer portions of their monthly purchasing rights to other nations. True, this might require the vaccine makers to accept lower payments from those other countries, but she says...

ANDREA TAYLOR: It takes only the most cursory glance at the sort of incomes and earnings statements coming out from the vaccine makers to know that they can take that (laughter). They can take that hit without any problem at all.

AIZENMAN: Analysts are also pushing for more of the doses in the existing stockpiles to be shipped overseas. Rachel Silverstein is with the Washington think tank Center for Global Development.

RACHEL SILVERMAN: The logistics, as I understand it, are somewhat complicated but doable.

AIZENMAN: And, she says, the world needs to fix this. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly refer to Rachel Silverman as Rachel Silverstein.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.