- Dr. Syra Madadinfectious disease epidemiologist who leads the special pathogens program for NYC Health and Hospitals, the largest public healthcare system in the United States.
President Biden’s plan to buy 500 million doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine and donate them to 92 countries comes as health experts warn vaccination inequity could prolong the pandemic for everyone if the coronavirus continues to mutate, possibly making it more infectious and resistant to vaccines. Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong has said people on the continent are watching in “amazement” as Americans turn down vaccines, many of which are now expiring instead of being sent elsewhere. “Right now the game plan should be providing the surplus vaccines to countries around the world, because the pandemic is happening right now,” says Dr. Syra Madad, infectious disease epidemiologist who leads the Special Pathogens Program for NYC Health and Hospitals, the largest public healthcare system in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, earlier this month, Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said in an interview that people on the continent are watching in “amazement” as Americans turn down vaccines.
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: This is a continent of 1.2 billion people, but, as we speak today, less than 2% of that population has been immunized. … We are desperate to get more vaccines. And we can see that the continent is eager to get more vaccines, to get vaccinated. … We are watching what is going on in the U.S. with total amazement. And we really hope that the partnership with their president, Biden, will help us and enable us to roll out our vaccines, our position on vaccination, in a timely fashion.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of Africa CDC. And you can go to democracynow.org for our several interviews with him. And this is White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci talking earlier this month about people in the U.S. refusing vaccines.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, one of the real ironic things are that we have people in the rest of the world — in India, in South America, in southern Africa — who are pleading for vaccines because they don’t have enough doses. We have more doses than we need in this country. What a shame and a tragedy that we don’t make use of something that is for our benefit, when others throughout the world would do anything to have what we have.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Syra Madad, what do you endorse? We have the situation now where there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Johnson & Johnson vaccines that are going to go bad throughout the United States in the next few weeks because they’re just not being used in states. Then you have some of the wealthiest countries in the world — not the United States now — opposing this WTO waiver, that drug companies would have to share the recipes so that other drug companies that don’t invent the vaccine but have the capacity to make the vaccine can get these vaccines around the world. And now you have President Biden today announcing a half a billion vaccines to over 90 of the poorest countries in the world. What needs to happen? How is it that we have these vaccines that are about to expire, and you have, just to the south of us, Mexico begging us for vaccines?
DR. SYRA MADAD: Yeah, I think there’s two parts to it. First, you know, these surges are happening right now, and so it behooves us to make sure that we are taking the surplus vaccines that we have here in the U.S. and donating it to countries that are in need. And we need to be very strategic about it. So, certainly, we want to provide vaccines to the entire world, but right now we have countries that are experiencing surges. We have countries that are on the precipice of experiencing surges. So, if we’re strategic about where we’re providing the vaccines right now, we would help avert many more deaths in the future.
So, with the J&J vaccine, you know, that we have many that are looking to expire this month, I think there is a game plan from the federal government to look at it and see if we can use it here domestically or send it internationally. So I think the Biden administration is doing what they can, and they are looking at this closely. It’s not as if they are oblivious of what’s not happening. And so, I think it’s just important to probably note that they are looking at it and they are seeing what they can do about these vaccines that are about to expire with the J&J.
With that said, and as I mentioned, right now the game plan should be providing the surplus vaccines to countries around the world, because the pandemic is happening right now. But on top of that, we need to look at, with the transfer of the — you know, and the waiver of the intellectual property, patents is just one obstacle. It’s more of transferring the technology and the capacity and the capability to actually manufacture vaccines. But that’s not going to happen overnight. I mean, it takes some time to develop these — you know, these companies that can manufacture COVID-19 vaccines. And so, that needs to also happen in parallel, because we know this pandemic is something that’s going to go on for the foreseeable future. And so, while we’re providing the vaccines right now as a stopgap, we can also make sure that they have not just the recipe, but the technology and the infrastructure that they need to actually develop their own vaccines. It’s like giving individuals a fruit for now, but then giving them a seed to grow it in the future. And that’s exactly what we need. You know, so I think that we are in a better position, but certainly we just have to work very fast, because, as we know, this virus — this is very fast, and it’s happening all around the world with us right now.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Madad, indeed, you know, here in the U.S., because — despite, obviously, there are levels of numbers of people who are not receiving the vaccine, the virus is abating here, and the country is opening up. But in much of the rest of the world or in many parts of the world, the pandemic and its effects are worse now than they were last year, including in India and many parts of Latin America, as well. So, if I could just ask: Do you think, here in the U.S., given the almost absurd levels of incentives that are now being offered to people who are vaccine hesitant, in your experience, are you seeing more of those people now receiving the vaccine? I mean, they’re being offered everything from millions of dollars in lottery prizes, and, most remarkably, in West Virginia, officials offering a chance to win rifles, for those who agree to take the vaccine.
DR. SYRA MADAD: Yeah, I mean, first, I’m baffled, right? I’m baffled at the fact that we have to give Americans money and incentives to take a life-saving, preventative vaccine that billions of people around the world are dying for. It’s just really, really sad to see the current state of affairs that we are in, and over 30% of Americans remain unvaccinated.
And so, you know, I think that individuals are getting vaccinated, but it has slowed down quite a bit. As we’re seeing, you know, only about 1.3 million shots are going into arms every day, which is one of the lowest that we’ve been. It’s been over a 50% decrease since the peak of vaccination in April. And so, we’re going — we’re very slow, in terms of those that are in that wait-and-see category that are getting vaccinated. And I think that’s where — you know, a lot of us are working very hard to address individuals that are vaccine hesitant, to get them to the right of accepting the vaccines. But it’s not going to happen overnight, and we need to just continue to chip away at it. This is not something that’s going to go away just within the next week. You can offer them a million dollars, but that’s not going to be enough for many individuals that don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
So we certainly need to continue with our creativity and our innovation to get more Americans vaccinated. At the same time, we have a global fire of virus raging around the world, and so we need to continue to work globally to ensure that these vaccines are getting to where they need to go if Americans don’t want them. We need to continue to work on both fronts. And as of May of this year, 75% of the COVID-19 doses were being administered in only 10 countries, including the United States. There are countries in Africa that have less than 1% of their population vaccinated, whereas here in the United States we have over 50%, or about 64%, actually, now, that received one dose.
So we need to make sure that we’re looking at it from a lens of: There are Americans that are hesitant; we need to continue to work at — you know, work with them to have them make more informed decisions; but at the same time, we need to take our surplus vaccines and continue to donate it, which is happening right now with the Biden administration. So, it’s not one of those things where it’s if and then, or us versus them. It’s these types of, you know, issues that we need to work concurrently, and we need to continue to chip away at it, because these are long-standing issues.
Vaccine hesitancy is not something new. It hasn’t been new for this COVID-19 vaccine. It’s been around for decades. I responded to the measles epidemic we had here in New York City in 2018, and I saw, full swing, the vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vax group come out. And so, we’ve seen this. And, in fact, the World Health Organization has called vaccine hesitancy one of the top 10 global health threats around the world many years ago. So, this has not — it’s not a new phenomena. But we just need to continue to work at it, because we want to make sure we’re protecting all people from getting infected with COVID-19, and now that we have this life-saving vaccine, that we need to ensure that more people understand that this is the benefit for them and those around them and to end this pandemic sooner for all of us.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Madad, one of the reasons that’s given here in the U.S. for people refusing the vaccine is the fact that the three vaccines that are in use here still only have emergency use authorization by the FDA. When do you expect the vaccines to be fully authorized? And what’s holding that up?
DR. SYRA MADAD: So, both Moderna and Pfizer have submitted for full approval to the FDA. It’s an entire process that is followed, and it can take a few months for the FDA to go through all the data. But I think the important part is the step has been taken to get the full approval. And many Americans, if you look at the survey, you know, they do feel it’s because this is an emergency authorized vaccine. If once it’s fully approved, that may be another incentive for them to get vaccinated. So we’re going to probably see many more Americans get vaccinated once that full approval is given by the FDA. But it does take some time. But the good thing is that that step has been taken with both Pfizer and Moderna. So, within the next, you know, couple months, we may see the approval come through.
And what this will also mean is that these companies can now advertise on TV. They can directly contact consumers to get vaccinated. Right now they can’t do that with the emergency authorization that they have. So we’ll see much more of marketing and promotion of these vaccines, once they’re approved. And we’ll see probably more Americans wanting to get vaccinated, based on survey results, because they’re waiting for that approval.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Syra Madad, now the companies are looking at younger and younger children, already now 12 on up for Moderna and Pfizer, and now Moderna is looking at, I think, from 6 months on up. Can you talk about some of the complications that children are having right now? As the hospitalization goes down for those who are vaccinated and deaths go down in the United States, for children some of those hospitalizations are going up.
DR. SYRA MADAD: Well, and that’s exactly correct. So, what we’re seeing is that, you know, many adults are now fully vaccinated, and when we’re looking at adolescents, they’re still vulnerable. And the virus is still out there. It’s still circulating in our communities, in our neighborhoods, within our families. And so you’re seeing now the virus is trying to find somebody to infect. And you have adolescents that are still vulnerable, that are not vaccinated, so you’re seeing a higher number of those groups get infected, requiring hospitalizations.
While we are seeing lower cases, generally, of severe illness and death associated with it, you are seeing more cases of the younger population getting infected. And that’s why it’s important for the adolescents that are 12 and older to get vaccinated. You know, it’s not just because of risk to themselves and the implications of long COVID, but they can still harbor the virus and spread it to others that are vulnerable.
And so, to give you an example, we have about 3 to 4% of the American population that are immunocompromised — you know, they may be taking immunosuppressants — or organ transplant recipients, many others that fall under this bucket. And while they’re vaccinated, they don’t have a great, robust immune response. They have a suboptimal, you know, immune response.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
DR. SYRA MADAD: And so they’re still vulnerable to infection. And so we want to make sure that, you know, the adolescents are also looking to get vaccinated. It’s important for us to reach a threshold of good herd immunity.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. But, Dr. Syra Madad, thank you so much for being with us, New York City epidemiologist.