Teams around the world are working to develop a vaccine that will be effective against Covid-19.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called it “the most urgent joint effort of our lives”.
But far from the cutting edge science of finding a winning formula, what about the logistics of deploying a vaccine to seven billion people around the world?
In the UK, the heart of this effort is at Harwell Science Campus, at a former RAF air base in Oxfordshire.
It will be the UK Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Center (VMIC), whose plans were put forward by Covid-19.
“We really cut the timeline almost in half. So while we expected to have it ready by the end of 2022, we now hope to have it online in 2021 ”, explains Matthew Duchars, CEO of VMIC.
‘Like baking a cake’
Mr Duchars has yet to take a summer vacation because he knows this location could end up producing the Oxford University vaccine. He is in constant contact with the Jenner Institute team, just down the street in Oxford.
He says it is a heavy responsibility.
“It is extremely important, not only for the country but for the world, to be able to produce these types of vaccines quickly and efficiently,” he says.
“To use an analogy, it’s like baking a cake at home. You can spend hours baking the perfect cake and now you have to go out and bake 70 million of them and they all have to be perfect so that’s quite a challenge. . ”
It’s the least we can say.
The University of Oxford has already had to secure enough temporary lab space to start manufacturing its vaccine now, before it even knew the results of its global trials.
Ultimately, the human race will have to manufacture billions of doses of several types of Covid-19 vaccines. They will all have to be manufactured, distributed and administered worldwide.
The international vaccine alliance – Gavi – urges countries to start thinking about vaccine deployment now.
But securing international cooperation is not easy, as many wealthy countries are already making bilateral deals with drug companies to ensure they can secure their supplies if the magic formula is found.
Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, says one of the biggest hurdles he faces is so-called “vaccine nationalism”.
“I think we need all countries to think about this in a holistic way, partly because it is the right thing to do but also because it is a matter of personal interest,” he said. .
“If you have large reservoirs of the virus circulating in neighboring countries, you cannot return to your normal trade, travel or movement of people. It is really important to have this mindset: we are not safe, unless everyone is safe. “
In addition to trying to ensure that developing countries have access to the right vaccines, Berkley needs to think about the more prosaic aspects of vaccine deployment, including whether or not there are enough glass vials in the package. world. There have been reports of a potential bottleneck in the production of medical glass.
“We were worried about it,” admits Berkley, “so we’ve bought enough vials for two billion doses, that’s the number of doses we hope to have ready by the end of 2021”.
If glass vials are a potential problem, so are refrigerators, as most vaccines need to be stored at low temperatures.
Keep the cold
Professor Toby Peters, an expert in cold chain logistics at the University of Birmingham, is helping organizations like Gavi think about how to maximize existing refrigeration capacity in developing countries.
He says, “It’s not just a vaccine refrigerator, it’s actually all the other parts too: the pallets that move it on planes; the vehicles that carry it to local stores, and then the motorcycles and people that take it out properly. in communities. It all has to work transparently. ”
Professor Peters spoke to global food and beverage companies to explore cold chain storage borrowing to help with this massive project.
To make vaccine deployment more manageable, countries will need to determine who to prioritize in their populations.
Who is the first in line?
Dr Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at the Wellcome Trust in the UK, says countries are going to have to ask frank questions.
“Who needs this vaccine? Who are the highest risk groups? And who are the highest priority? Because what we’re pretty clear about is that any initial vaccine is likely to exceed supply, so choices will have to be made. ”
Even doing the actual vaccinations will be difficult.
The UK, for example, is looking at a model that uses its network of polling stations to process the population. But for poorer countries, it’s even more intimidating.
Dr Weller stresses that strong health systems will be essential, with health workers who have the appropriate technical skills to immunize target groups.
Scientists all believe that some sort of vaccine will be found. But many of them say they’re kept awake at night by the scale of what needs to be done to reach billions of people.
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