Pharmacy technician Shenniel McLean holds up the 600,000th vaccine dose drawn at the Jacob Javits mass vaccination site in New York City on May 20, 2021.

As U.S. Approaches Vaccination Goal, Many Countries Await Supply

The White House detailed two initiatives to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates this week — one focused at home, and the other abroad. The announcements come as the divide widens between communities that are vaccinated and those that are un- or under-vaccinated.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced a new campaign to encourage Americans to receive the vaccines, as the White House pushes to achieve its goal of seeing 70 percent of adults in the United States at least partially vaccinated by July 4.

Right now, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63 percent of U.S. adults — 162 million people — have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. (Around 6.4 million adolescents have gotten shots, too.) To reach the White House goal, 18 million more adults need to get their first dose in the next month.

Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation continues to suggest that millions of unvaccinated Americans are open to getting the shot. The factors that have so far held them back vary: Some may be waiting for the vaccines, which are currently approved under an Emergency Use Authorization, to receive final Food and Drug Administration approval. Others appear to be worried about missing work because of side effects, or are hampered by transportation issues. Some are concerned that, despite repeated assurances that the shots are free, they’ll be hit with a bill anyway. (“This is America — your health care is not free,” one unvaccinated Oregonian recently told The New York Times. “I just feel like that is how the vaccination process is going to go.”)

The White House plans to address such concerns through a range of incentives and programs. One initiative will offer 24-hour vaccination on Fridays at pharmacies and other sites across the country. Another provides free childcare to parents while they receive shots. The “Shots at the Shop” campaign will turn 1,000 Black-owned salons and barbershops into vaccination sites. And, according to the White House, small businesses that give employees paid time off for getting a shot will receive a tax credit.

Across the country, programs run by individual states, cities, and companies are offering vaccinated people the chance to receive cash, free beer, high-end guns, and other prizes.

Meanwhile, basic access to vaccines remains out of reach for much of the world. According to data shared by World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus this week, just 0.4 percent of vaccine doses have gone to people in low-income countries.

In a statement on Thursday morning, the White House offered details of a plan to share 80 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine with other countries by the end of June. An initial allocation of 25 million doses will mostly be distributed through COVAX — a global vaccine-access program — with the largest share going to South and Southeast Asia.

Those doses will only begin to get COVAX toward its stated goal of delivering 2 billion doses by the end of the year. For now, it seems, Covid-19 may be on its way to becoming a disease of poverty. Wealthy people in Latin America are flying to the U.S. to secure shots, and cases are dropping in high-income countries. At the same time, highly transmissible new variants are devastating parts of South Asia, and cases are rising in Latin America and in countries, such as Vietnam, that have previously fended off the virus through robust public health measures.

Also in the News:

• The editor in chief of JAMA — one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals — will step down from his position later this month, following backlash over comments about racism made by a member of his team. Howard Bauchner had been on administrative leave since March during an investigation into the comments, which appeared in a February episode of the journal’s podcast. In the episode, Edward Livingston, then a JAMA deputy editor, said he thought socioeconomic factors, rather than structural racism, were responsible for limiting the advancement of people of color. “Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation would help,” Livingston said in the episode, which has since been withdrawn. “Many people like myself are offended by the implication that we are somehow racist.” Critics quickly called out the episode, as well as a promotional JAMA tweet asserting that “no physician is racist.” JAMA is published by the American Medical Association (AMA), and some people in the broader medical community described the incident as just one chapter in a long history of medical journals botching the handling of issues of race. “It’s a sign of good leadership that Dr. Bauchner is taking responsibility with this announcement,” Siobhan Wescott, an Alaskan Native physician and leader within the AMA’s Minority Affairs Section, told STAT. “I genuinely hope the change opens up the opportunity for JAMA to rethink structure, leadership, and processes that held JAMA back from excellence in handling race.” (The New York Times)

• The WHO announced this week that it would begin using letters of the Greek alphabet to name variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The system will be applied to what public health officials call “variants of concern” — mutations of the virus that make it more infectious or more lethal. Under the new naming scheme, the first significant variant to be described, the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, will now be called the Alpha variant. The most recent variant of concern, B.1.617.2, which has spread rapidly in India, has been dubbed the Delta variant. The primary reason for this change, according to the WHO, is to provide “easier to use language” for public discussion. The organization is also responding to concerns that identifying viruses or variants by the country in which they were first identified — such as the so-called South African variant, now branded Beta — can foster prejudice and stigmatize those countries. The WHO wasted no time in putting its new system into practice, announcing on Wednesday that the Delta variant has now spread to 62 countries. (STAT)

• According to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, around 37 percent of global heat deaths can be attributed to rising temperatures caused by climate change. The international research team analyzed heat deaths from 1991 to 2018 in 732 cities around the globe. They then used computer models that simulated a world without climate change to determine which deaths could be directly attributed to humanity’s impact on increasing global temperatures. The largest portion of climate change-linked heat deaths occurred in South American cities, such as São Paulo, Brazil, which had an average of 239 per year. The study also identified cities in South Asia and southern Europe as especially vulnerable. In the cities studied, the team concluded that around 9,700 people had died each year due to the elevated temperatures. “It is something we directly cause,” Ana Vicedo-Cabrera, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern and a lead author on the paper, told The Associated Press. (The Associated Press)

• Freedom of Information Act requests filed by BuzzFeed News, The Washington Post, and CNN have yielded thousands of pages of emails from U.S infectious disease chief Anthony Fauci. BuzzFeed’s trove of 3,200 pages of emails, which were published this week and date from the first six months of 2020, offer a glimpse into Fauci’s response to the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and a tense political climate. In the exchanges, Fauci deals with government officials and fields queries from health care experts, celebrities, and the general public. In several emails, people seek Fauci’s opinion on whether the coronavirus may have leaked from a laboratory. (His responses to these emails are redacted.) Fauci also received questions on the use of masks to stop the spread of the virus, and on the use of the antiviral drug remdesivir to treat Covid-19. In the emails, Fauci can be seen dispelling misinformation, defending his decisions, and even pushing back against some of his correspondents. “I genuflect to no one but science and always, always speak my mind when it comes to public health,” Fauci wrote in a response to one epidemiologist, who seemed to suggest that pressure from the Trump administration had shaped Fauci’s team’s response to the crisis. “I have consistently corrected misstatements by others and will continue to do so.” (BuzzFeed News)

• And finally: After a more than 30-year hiatus, NASA announced this week that it will send two robotic missions to Venus, a nearby planetary neighbor that has long played second fiddle to Mars in the realm of space exploration. The announcement was welcome news to scientists who study Venus, who have argued that the scorching hot planet — comparable in size, mass, and composition to Earth — could hold clues to how our own planet came to be. And it comes on the heels of a controversial study, published last September, that claimed to find evidence of floating microbial life in the Venusian atmosphere. One of the two new missions, dubbed DAVINCI+, will drop an armored sphere through that atmosphere to try to tease out its chemistry. A second, VERITAS, will deploy radar to search for potential volcanoes and tectonic plates on the surface. “I am stunned,” said planetary scientist Patrick McGovern, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, in reaction to the news. “In one fell swoop NASA created that #VenusProgram, with two outstanding missions.” Both missions are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030. (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Sudhi Oberoi, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.