Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom adequately described the unprecedented race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine as “the most urgent shared endeavor of our lifetimes.”
But it’s not enough to simply formulate an effective vaccine– which, of course, is anything but simple. Successfully harnessing the science of vaccinations also involves the wildly complex logistics of rolling out a vaccine to seven billion people around the world.
Each country is tackling this challenge in its own way, some more proactively and effectively than others. With only a few months until the first vaccines are expected to receive approval for use in high-risk populations, what’s the plan to vaccinate seven billion people and stop this pandemic in its tracks?
Overcoming Vaccine Nationalism
The concept of nationalism has existed since the earliest humans walked the earth, but the coronavirus pandemic has triggered nationalism in an entirely new form: vaccine nationalism.
Governments in wealthy, developed countries are busy making deals with pharmaceutical companies and vaccine manufacturers to secure enough doses for their citizens. Of course, these deals are occurring long before any vaccines have been officially certified or approved; governments are hedging their bets and hoping for success.
The UK government, for example, recently signed deals for six potential virus vaccines that may– or may not– prove effective. These deals include:
- 100 million doses of the adenoviral vaccine created by AstraZeneca and Oxford University
- 30 million doses of the adenoviral vaccine manufactured by Janssen
- 30 million doses of the mRNA vaccine manufactured by BioNTech and Pfizer
- 60 million doses of the inactivated whole virus vaccine produced by Valneva
- 60 million doses of the protein adjuvant vaccine produced by GSK and Sanofa
- 60 million doses of the protein adjuvant vaccine made by Novovax
Across the Atlantic, the U.S government announced in July a $2 billion deal with Pfizer Inc and German biotech BioNTech. The deal, which is contingent on an approvable vaccine, guarantees enough vaccines to inoculate 50 million Americans at the cost of about $20 per dose, or $40 per person.
However, organizations on the frontlines of delivering vaccines warn that locking in advance deals with pharmaceutical companies creates “a dangerous trend of vaccine nationalism by richer nations” and reduces availability to vulnerable people in poorer countries.
“I think we need all countries to be thinking about this in a globally minded way, partially because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s a self-interest issue,” explains Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the international vaccines alliance.
“If you have large reservoirs of virus circulating in surrounding countries, you can’t go back to your normal trade, travel or movement of people,” he says. “It’s really important to have that mindset: we’re not safe, unless everybody is safe.”
Stages 1, 2 and 3
When vaccines do become available, the initial supply will be limited to about 3% of the population. Most countries agree that this limited Stage 1 should prioritize social care workers and health care workers who are most vulnerable to infection in their line of work.
As more vaccine doses are produced and allocation rises to cover 20% of the population, Stage 2 of the rollout focuses on adults over 65 and those at high risk of severe COVID-19 infection. The rest of the population will wait until Stage 3, when allocation rises above 20% and other priority groups can receive vaccines.
Countless other factors may influence the process of vaccinating the entire world population. Even once manufacturing hits a steady pace, distribution becomes an issue. COVID-19 vaccines will require constant refrigeration at low temperatures, something that poses enormous logistical complications in underdeveloped nations.
So even after scientists achieve the impossible and develop a successful vaccine in less than a year, many of them say they still won’t be able to sleep at night as they consider the immense challenges that come next.