Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What U.S. Vaccine Donations Mean For Sierra Leone And Africa


The Biden administration said this week it would send 500 million doses of the Pfizer COVID vaccine to 100 lower-income nations around the world. It is the largest donation yet to the International COVAX program that was set up by the World Health Organization. It's being matched by other members of the G-7 for a total of a billion doses for countries that have so far struggled to get them. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in one of the countries likely to receive some of those hundreds of millions of shots. He's with us now from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Jason, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Oh, it's great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So should we focus on Africa since you're in one of the countries on the continent? Can you just give us a sense of how significant the donation will be for countries in Africa?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it's very significant. African nations desperately need access to more COVID vaccines. You know, you've got about 18% of the world's population on this continent, but only 1% of vaccines that have been administered globally have been in Africa, you know? And that inequity is a huge problem not just for Africa, you know? It means that people here aren't protected, but it also leaves room for the virus to spark new outbreaks, potentially create new variants. And part of the issue is that this donation - it doesn't solve those problems in Africa, at least in the short term.

MARTIN: And why is that? Why doesn't it solve those problems even in the short term?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, well, for a couple of reasons. First, the initial shipments aren't going to go out until August at the earliest. And then the majority of that half a billion from the U.S. - 300 million of those doses aren't supposed to get shipped until next year, sometime. The other issue is that this donation from the U.S. is the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored at incredibly cold temperatures. It's minus 70 degrees Celsius, which is, like, somewhere around negative 100 Fahrenheit. And you need these special freezers in order to handle it.

MARTIN: Well, so how widespread are those special freezers where you are, throughout the continent, let's say?

BEAUBIEN: You know, many countries don't have these freezers. Or if they do, they might only have one at a national research lab in the capital. Sierra Leone, where I am, actually does have one of these freezers because they're in the middle of doing an Ebola vaccination campaign right now. And it also uses that same ultracold storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius.

I was talking with Safa Kamara (ph). He's an immunization officer with UNICEF, and they're involved in a lot of the vaccination efforts across the country. And Kamara was saying that this one freezer's already being used for the Ebola vaccine, and they would need more such freezers if they were to try to do a national COVID immunization campaign with the Pfizer vaccine.

SAFA KAMARA: We don't have that kind of capacity to receive more of vaccines that require that kind of, you know, temperature maintenance here.

BEAUBIEN: And then you've got other countries which don't even have any of these ultracold freezers, you know, at all, which makes it very difficult for them to use the Pfizer vaccine.

MARTIN: So we've reached you in Sierra Leone. Can you just tell us, like, what's the COVID situation there? And have people been able to get vaccinated at all yet?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I mean, the number of cases here remains incredibly low. This is a country of 8 million people. And on many days, you're only getting about - you know, single digits is what the numbers are that are coming in, you know? In terms of vaccines, they've gotten two shipments of COVID vaccines here so far. One was from China for Sinopharm, the Sinopharm product in February and another one from the COVAX program of AstraZeneca. And that was in March. It was only a few hundred thousand doses.

And some of those haven't even been administered yet, you know? So at this point, it's still less than 1% of the population that's been immunized here in Sierra Leone. And that's pretty average if you look across most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. So getting back - more vaccines through this donation that President Biden is announcing is definitely important. But there's a lot of other work that's going to have to happen in order to get those shots actually out there, you know, and into people's arms.

MARTIN: That is NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien talking to us from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jason, thanks so much for talking with us.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLO & PAN'S "ZOOM ZOOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.