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With Surges, It's Hard To Stop Transmission Of COVID-19, Variants

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to bring in another voice now, Dr. Margaret Harris of the World Health Organization. Thank you so much for being here.

MARGARET HARRIS: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: We just heard about the awful situation, really, in India and the growing death toll there. Brazil just topped 400,000 deaths. Understanding these are two different countries, but still, what needs to happen to stop the spread in these two places in particular?

HARRIS: We have seen this happen time and again in different countries. But in a country with such a huge population, it's on a horrendous scale. What needs to be done is to actually stop transmission, and that can be done. We've seen it happen over and over again, but it's hard work. And one of the things that your previous correspondent described, staying home if you can, is effective when you're at this stage because you're essentially putting the entire community in quarantine. And right now, what has to happen is stopping that transmission from person to person.

MARTIN: But the government, as India - the government of India has been reticent to impose nationwide lockdowns. That makes it difficult, no?

HARRIS: Well, it's difficult, especially putting huge populations in lockdown, because it has enormous economic and social consequences. But targeted lockdowns where you know you've got widespread community transmission and you're not able to test. So you're not able to identify where the virus is. That's when a lockdown is actually the most effective tool because you're essentially saying, we don't know where the virus is, but we're going to stop it from going from person to person. But indeed, when you do this, you have to do it making sure that you can support people, that people can feed their families, that you - your society can keep on going while you're stopping the transmission.

MARTIN: France just detected its first case of the variant first identified in India. What can you tell us about that variant?

HARRIS: So India detected the B.1.617 variant. That's the one that you're talking about. They first detected that in October 2020, and there has been an increasing detection of this variant during the surge in COVID-19 in parts of India. And preliminary modeling does suggest that it's got a higher growth rate than other circulating variants. However, we don't have enough information that - to suggest whether or not it's a major driver. We think that the driver of this large outbreak is a combination of factors of relaxation of the protective measures - the personal protective measures, perhaps a little bit of complacency along with the rise in transmission. They also have a number of other variants circulating as well, including the ones detected in the United Kingdom, in South Africa and in Brazil.

MARTIN: All of the variants have got people worried - right? - about whether or not the vaccines that are circulating right now are actually - will actually prevent getting COVID-19 and these variants. What can you say about the strength of the current vaccines against the way the vaccine - or the way the virus is mutating?

HARRIS: Well, certainly this is an area of ongoing and very intense work. We have a group who are looking at all the variants and classify them as variants of concern if we think that they are - they may have an effect on transmission or if they're trying - they have a tendency to escape vaccines. To date, some of the data that's - especially coming out of the United Kingdom - is quite positive in that it's showing that the vaccines that they're using there have been able to bring down disease and death in - even in the groups - even in people who have tested positive for a variant. So it seems that they are - the vaccines still are effective, but it's certainly something we're watching.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the distribution of the vaccines. The WHO says more than a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide, but only 0.3% were given to people in low-income countries. How do you change that?

HARRIS: We change that by upping the amount of doses that are available that can be distributed around the world. And that comes down to dose sharing. That comes down to upscaling the manufacturing, increasing the manufacturing locally, technology transfer. So there is a lot that can be done. But the critical thing is to get it done as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: We will end it there, but we look forward to our next conversation.

Dr. Margaret Harris of the WHO, thank you so much for taking the time this morning.

HARRIS: As a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.