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In Many Parts Of The World, Pandemic Conditions Remain Dire

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the overall state of the pandemic, here in the U.S. is improving. The number of new cases has fallen significantly from an all-time high back in January. And we appear to be on track to make vaccinations available to just about anyone who wants them by this summer. But it's a different story in other parts of the world. The situation is dire. NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us now. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Just give us the big picture right now of the pandemic.

BEAUBIEN: You know, it really varies from place to place. But, you know, well over a year into this, in some parts of the world, it's really bad. It's the worst yet in the pandemic.

MARTIN: So exactly where? What are the worst spots right now?

BEAUBIEN: So the worst spots are India. It's really bad there. Turkey, Iran, the Philippines are all at all-time highs. Several South American countries - Chile, Argentina, Peru - also are recording record levels. You know, in some countries, ICU beds are full. India, it's running out of bottled oxygen that's needed to treat people. Even Thailand is hitting record highs.

MARTIN: Which is interesting - right? - because Thailand had been kind of held up there as a success story.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. I mean, they had kept numbers down into the single digits for much of last year. But now they're also setting new records for infections. And then other large countries that have struggled throughout the pandemic, like Brazil, they've backed off record highs, but their numbers have plateaued at these significantly high levels.

MARTIN: I mean, as you noted, India is really suffering right now. Have we learned anything about why?

BEAUBIEN: We haven't. There are some new strains that are circulating there. There's some great concern about that. But it really is too early to tell whether those strains are driving this spike in transmission. We just don't have the data yet. And we're going to have to keep an eye on that.

MARTIN: What about COVID fatigue? I mean, is there evidence that some of these countries, people are just so tired of living under lockdowns that they're not being vigilant about distancing or masks?

BEAUBIEN: Certainly that seems like that's part of the issue. You know, some places have formally lifted a lot of the restrictions; others, though, haven't. But the thing is, this virus just keeps surprising health officials, and it keeps exploiting any opportunity it can to spread. I was talking with Jennifer Nuzzo. She's a senior scholar over at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. And she says it looks very grim in several parts of the world right now.

JENNIFER NUZZO: I am worried. Right now, we're talking about Latin America, we're talking about India, but, you know, we could be talking about Africa in the coming, you know, weeks to months. I think what India is teaching us is that this situation is not over and that countries remain vulnerable until they're able to vaccinate their populations. But unfortunately, there's just simply not enough vaccines to achieve those goals.

BEAUBIEN: And one of the big problems from a global perspective is that India is one of the world's largest exporters of vaccines, and that has been disrupted by this surge in cases there.

MARTIN: Say more about the access to vaccines because I mean, here in the U.S., that's at least one part of this pandemic that the U.S. is doing well with, vaccine supply.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, but it's really interesting. The U.S. is very much an outlier compared to other countries when it comes to vaccinations. Other countries simply do not have the access to vaccines that we've had in the United States. If you look at the U.S., roughly 40% of the entire population has gotten at least one dose of a vaccine. No other large country is even close to that. We looked at countries over 100 million population. The next would be China. They've got about 14% of their population vaccinated; India, it's down around eight. And then some other large countries like Japan, Pakistan, Nigeria, they've only got less than 1% or 1% of their people vaccinated so far. You know, Jennifer Nuzzo at Hopkins says this is a problem because the important thing right now, particularly given the rise of variants, is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

NUZZO: Like it or not, we live in a global world. The emergence and spread of the variants raise the possibility that there could be new strains that could overcome our vaccines.

BEAUBIEN: And luckily, that hasn't happened so far, but...

MARTIN: Yeah, it goes on. NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.