UNICEF helps distribute vaccines to developing countries

Efforts are underway to get the coronavirus vaccine to people in developing countries. UNICEF is helping lead the charge for the global COVAX rollout in places like Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Lana Zak spoke with Michael Nyenhuis, president and CEO of UNICEF, USA, about the humanitarian mission.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: Vaccination efforts are underway around the globe, but there are also concerns about getting the vaccine to people in underdeveloped countries. UNICEF is leading the charge for the global rollout of vaccines. The World Health Organization and AstraZeneca have been assisting in the effort. On Friday, my colleague Tanya Rivero spoke with the executive vice president and president of AstraZeneca's BioPharmaceuticals Business Unit. He told her this effort is crucial, and the pandemic won't be over for anyone until it's over for everyone.

RUUD DOBBER: I think it's very important to do that. Let's not forget, of course, we would like to vaccinate every American, every European, every one in the developed markets. But no one is safe till everyone is safe, and I think it's very important that companies like us are doing everything in order to bring a good, highly effective vaccine which is safe also to the low and the middle income countries.

LANA ZAK: And joining us now for more is Michael Nyenhuis. He is the president and CEO of UNICEF USA. Mr. Nyenhuis, thanks for being with us. And thank you for the work that you're doing. Can you give us an update on the vaccine distribution efforts? How many have you delivered? Who have you reached?

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having us and for your interest in the story. We are so focused on equitable access to the vaccine across the globe, just to repeat what your-- the previous interview said. You know, nobody's safe until everybody's safe, and that includes people all around the globe. So UNICEF is playing, you know, the essential effort in procuring and distributing vaccines around the globe, and that effort really kicked off over the last week or two.

So far, we've delivered about 12 million vaccines to about 20 different countries in Africa, primarily, but also a little bit in Asia and in Latin America. And that's going to pick up very fast. At least 12 more countries in the next seven days. And so we're working really hard to make sure that people all over the world get the vaccine.

LANA ZAK: How many vaccine doses do you expect to distribute in all?

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Our goal is to distribute 2 billion doses this calendar year and then keep going next calendar year. Those 2 billion doses should provide enough for health care workers and other essential workers and vulnerable adults to get the vaccines across those countries.

Not everybody. We have a long way to go to get to everybody that needs one or wants one around the world. But, those essential workers and people who need them the most, we should be able to target them this year.

LANA ZAK: I'm wondering about the hurdles your effort faces. Here in the United States, as you know, we have three different approved vaccines. And only the Johnson & Johnson version doesn't require extreme freezing temperatures in order to keep the vaccine safe and effective.

How are you working around both the challenges that you're facing in terms of vaccine distribution in some of these-- in some of these countries that don't have the same access to infrastructure that we have here in the United States? And then what are some of the other challenges that we aren't even thinking about?

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Yeah, well let me start with just the reason UNICEF is even doing this, right? Why the world has turned to us to be able to do this. We are the largest procurer and distributor of vaccines around the world anyway. We do that for children every year. We vaccinate half the world's children every year and in countries really across the globe and in some of the most hardest and remote places to get to.

So we know how to do this. We have the infrastructure. We have the supply chain to be able to do it. Delivering vaccines that need cold chain all the way down to a small community somewhere in a lesser developed country is not new to us. We do that already. You know, the big question is really around refrigeration, which you've raised.

And we started a project back in 2015, 2016 to really ramp up the improvements in refrigeration around the globe. And-- because we need them for the childhood vaccines that we do every day. So that's made a big difference already, but one of the big challenges we have is to make sure that the countries and the communities are ready for the COVID vaccine. And so key work that we've been doing over the last few months was doing that readiness check. Where can we distribute them? Where is the refrigeration capability OK?

Where are the health workers trained well enough? We've done a lot of that. Where are communities ready? We've done a lot of work in preparing communities to have confidence in the vaccine to combat what we see sometimes with vaccine hesitancy. So we've done a lot of pre-work to make sure this happens. We're building off our historic infrastructure and expertise to do it and then tailoring it for this specific piece of work.

LANA ZAK: Mr. Nyenhuis, you can imagine that there are some people who are listening to our interview right now here in the United States who have pre-existing conditions, are essential workers, are concerned about their family's health and have been trying so hard to get a vaccine, hearing us talk about trying to get vaccine out to other countries.

And they feel like they don't even have access to it here. What do you say to these viewers who feel like this seems like a problem that is secondary for the leadership in our country in terms of being able to meet the needs of the citizens that are struggling to get the vaccine right now?

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Well, I say three things to that. One, I believe we have a moral obligation to be concerned about people all across the world. Our country is incredibly generous in its work supporting underserved people and vulnerable communities across the globe, and we need to continue that generosity. It's a moral obligation to help out. Secondly, there's a self-interest in it.

If we don't beat the pandemic everywhere, it could come back again. We've seen, you know, the rise of certain variants. And the opportunity for a variant that's going to beat the vaccine is a real potential if we don't beat it all pretty quickly. So, if we want to keep ourselves safe, it's not just about us being vaccinated. But it's about beating the pandemic all over the globe. And that means vaccinations for everybody. And then the third thing I would say is we're already way ahead.

We're already way, way ahead. We've procured and locked up so much of the vaccine supply already for our country and in Europe to the point that the questions about equity for the whole world, I think, are real. So it's not like we're running behind. We're way ahead already. We need to help the rest of the world catch up.

LANA ZAK: This is such a tremendous undertaking. And, as you mentioned, UNICEF does this as part of its regular modus operandi to provide vaccines to people all across the globe. What level of manpower does this particular effort take? And are you getting enough assistance from the United States, from other nations? What countries are doing a lot? And what countries should actually be doing more?

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Well, you know, the good thing is there was a global effort put together that's called COVAX, which is, you know, short for the COVID vaccine. And it was originally organized by the World Health Organization, GAVI, which is the Global Vaccine Alliance, and CEPI, which is a group that focuses on pandemics around the world. And they began to put together a coalition of countries that understood that this was necessary as a global effort not just as individual countries. And almost every country in the world has, sort of, signed up to that.

To pitch in, to help out, to either receive vaccines from it or to contribute to make sure that countries with less resources will be able to get the vaccines. And our country has done that already. You know, our country has committed $4 billion-- the Biden administration has-- to help fund the work of COVAX. That's going to help with procu-- vaccine procurement. But, really, it's such a Herculean task that the funding gap is still huge.

This is why one of the really critical things we're doing is trying to convince the philanthropic community, foundations, corporations, individual donors, major philanthropists, that this is a moment to do something historic. This is work that's never been done before at this scale. It's unlike any activity, you know, UNICEF has done in terms of its scale.

We need resources to do it, and we need everybody. It's an all hands on deck effort to make this happen. Governments have stepped up well, I think, which is really terrific. But we need the private sector to step up with us as well.

LANA ZAK: You know, one quick last question before I let you go. How long do you expect your mission to take?

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Oh, it's going to take, you know, another-- well into next year to be able to really make it happen. You know, again, we have this really big target for this calendar year. We need the supply. We need the supplies to crank up.

We need country-- community readiness to increase, and we're working hard on that. We need to continue to build confidence in the vaccine among the communities that will get the vaccine. And, if we do all those things really well, I think, you know, we'll be in pretty good shape as we move through next calendar year.

LANA ZAK: All right, Michael Nyenhuis, so much appreciate you coming on and talking to us.

MICHAEL NYENHUIS: Thanks for your interest. It's a really, really important effort that the whole world is participating in.