The Hunt for a COVID-19 Vaccine

A global effort is needed to meet the challenge of delivering a vaccine in record time and distributing it to billions of people. Photo by Daniel Schludi
A global effort is needed to meet the challenge of delivering a vaccine in record time and distributing it to billions of people. Photo by Daniel Schludi

By ADB Insight

Recent successful vaccine trials have raised hopes of an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended so many lives.

But when will the first vaccines be available? How do we distribute them? Who should get them first? Will developing countries be left behind?

Jane Halton is Chair of CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and previously served on the board of the World Health Organization. In a recent interview for the ADB Insight series, she discussed progress on a vaccine, remaining challenges, and reasons for optimism.

CEPI was formed  in 2017 with the motto “new vaccines for a safer world.” Did you think at the time that just three years later we'd be in the grip of this raging pandemic?

No. I mean, certainly when we established CEPI, we understood that there was a threat. In fact, that's the whole reason we set CEPI up, but I don't think anybody anticipated that so soon after the establishment of, as you say, a very young organization, we would literally be where we are today.

CEPI is involved in the huge COVAX program to distribute vaccines around the world. Tell us more.

One of the things that a number of us were very concerned about was the experience we had during H1N1. The problem with that was the wealthy countries and people with access to money and resources, and therefore to a vaccine, got access to that vaccine much earlier than the rest of the world. We needed to find a new way to ensure that people got equitable access to vaccine.

And we know that if the people around the world who have most need get access first we will actually reduce deaths quite considerably by 66%. Whereas if the vaccine only goes to wealthy countries for broad-based distribution in those countries, we will reduce deaths by a third.

Isn't it an own goal for richer countries to put their own citizens first, given that none of us are safe unless all of us are safe.

That's exactly right. We want to be able to travel. We want to be able to conduct our business, to trade, to go and see family. And of course, wherever this disease is raging in other parts of the world, it limits our ability to get on with our lives. So it is shortsighted because just protecting your own citizens is not going to enable your citizens to go about their business in the way that they would like. And indeed it doesn't enable your economy to function much as you would like.

When can the waiting world expect to receive those first precious doses of vaccines?

Nobody really knows when we will actually get to the start line. Our objective is to by the end of next year (2021) to deliver 2 billion doses. So that's the target we've set ourselves. And that would then enable us to really go and focus on those highly vulnerable populations right around the world. But that wouldn't start, we don't believe, until probably the first quarter of next year.

With developed countries pre-ordering so many vaccines, will there be enough left for developing countries? What reassurance can you give them?

There are real constraints around production. So the world can't produce a billion doses of vaccine very, very quickly. So every country is going to face that kind of challenge. We would all wish that everyone could get access at the same time, but there are these very real constraints around production. We're doing everything we can to get the target by the end of 2021.

What is the best way to manage anti-vaccine sentiment? Should there be greater curbs on social media, for instance, for a more moderate debate?

The misinformation, the misstatement, and in fact, the downright lies about the science and the facts that underpin issues in respect to vaccination … are very dangerous. I would hope that … managing this misinformation would be done voluntarily by companies. It's in their interest to be good corporate citizens and global citizens.

This is an edited transcript. Watch the full interview here.