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Africa CDC Director On The Continent's Outlook For Vaccinations


Early predictions were wrong. Africa has seen fewer deaths from COVID-19 in the last year than people initially projected - just over 100,000 to date. I asked Dr. John Nkengasong why that might be. He directs the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and he pointed to the continent's young population. The median age there is just about 20 years old.

JOHN NKENGASONG: Many people are being infected, but they are recovering from those infections. I think that is clearly one reason why we've not seen a lot of deaths.

SHAPIRO: When I asked what most concerns him right now, he said it's getting vaccines.

NKENGASONG: What concerns me the most is the inability to have handy access to a vaccine that we all know would be a game-changer in defining the course of the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: The continent is getting some help from the World Health Organization but not enough, he says.

NKENGASONG: As we speak, vaccines are just now beginning to arrive to the continent.

SHAPIRO: The WHO program called COVAX is delivering vaccine doses to less-wealthy developing countries, but it won't come close to the number of doses Dr. Nkengasong says Africa will need to vaccinate 60% of its 1.2 billion people. So the African Union is working to round up more doses, and then comes the challenge of distribution.

NKENGASONG: That requires extraordinary logistics and unprecedented efforts that we have never done on the continent. As a matter of fact, the continent of Africa has never vaccinated more than 1 million people in one year. So this is going to be a historic effort to be able to do a vaccination at the speed at which we expect it.

SHAPIRO: Plus the extremely cold storage chain that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require could be a problem in parts of the continent with less infrastructure. While the U.S. looks at maybe getting back to normal by the summer or the fall, Dr. Nkengasong told me the African continent might not reach that point until the end of next year.

NKENGASONG: At that point, I would feel comfortable to declare that the continent is back to normal again.

SHAPIRO: Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking from his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLIS ALPS SONG, "RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.