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More than a million cases of the coronavirus have now been reported in Mexico. That's more cases than the number of people that live in Delaware. Mexico's president has consistently played down the threat of the virus in hopes of keeping the economy open. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City, he is now being proactive to make sure his country is not left behind in the global race to secure a vaccine.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It seems every day, there's good news here about vaccines.
KAHN: Just last week, as a small audience applauded, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador signed agreements with the heads of three major pharmaceutical companies. The deals would guarantee Mexico more than 140 million doses as soon as a vaccine is available.
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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: The president says he's making sure Mexico is one of the first in line. In fact, Mexico has many agreements with nearly every company currently working on a vaccine, some even allowing companies to test their vaccines on the Mexican population. Martha Delgado, a deputy foreign minister, is leading Mexico's vaccine strategy.
MARTHA DELGADO: Mexico need to be aggressive in order to cover all the population.
KAHN: A tough task, especially as rich countries snatch up the vast majority of vaccines expected to be produced in the world - that has left middle-income and poor nations scrambling and possibly not vaccinated until 2023, according to researchers at Duke University. Delgado insists in an interview with NPR that Mexicans will not be used as the world's guinea pigs.
DELGADO: It's not really a strategy for Mexico to have trials here in order to get the vaccine.
KAHN: Last week, China's CanSino Biologics began late-phase testing of its vaccine in several Mexican states. Deals to run trials for Russia's Sputnik V and a German vaccine are underway and possibly two U.S. vaccines. Jonathan Terluk, an analyst at the risk advisory firm EMPRA, has concern about Mexico's ability to implement a mass vaccination program, but he gives high marks for the effort.
JONATHAN TERLUK: You don't really see a lot of countries taking this approach of working to do a lot of clinical trials to get priority access.
KAHN: Even critics like Dr. Julio Frenk, a former Mexican health minister, applaud Lopez Obrador's pursuit of a vaccine. But Frenk, who's now president of the University of Miami, says Mexico's government has bungled its response to the pandemic until now.
JULIO FRENK: It is the biggest public health failure in the history of Mexico.
KAHN: Mexico is edging toward nearly 100,000 deaths due to COVID, the fourth-highest death toll in the world. With very little testing being done - less than 2% of the population - health officials even admit the numbers are higher. Frenk says deaths could top a quarter of a million.
FRENK: Most of those deaths were preventable. And if that's the price that we're paying and now rushing to get at the front of the line, it strikes me as an acknowledgment of the failure.
KAHN: Despite the high death toll, President Lopez Obrador continues to downplay the pandemic.
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LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "There is no reason for us to be alarmed," said President Lopez Obrador earlier this month, adding, Mexico is no Europe. Lopez Obrador is almost never seen wearing a mask. Recently, he said there was no sound science proving face coverings even work. And the man who's now pinning his hopes on a cutting-edge vaccine famously even showed off religious amulets to ward off the virus.
IRMA SONIA RIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: At the bustling Sonora Market in Mexico City, many people give the president high marks for his handling of the pandemic. Irma Sonia Rios says she's barely eking out a living. She sells the amulets Lopez Obrador keeps in his pockets.
RIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "It's up to the people to follow good practices," she says, and gives the president a pass. If the market were not open, she says, she couldn't survive. She's thankful Lopez Obrador didn't lock down the economy. The economy has always been a priority for austerity-minded Lopez Obrador. While he's promised to provide vaccinations for all Mexicans free of charge, he hasn't been as clear in how he'll pay for it.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.