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In efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, the world has rightly, and crucially, focused on social distancing and other efforts to help flatten the curve.
It’s essential to continue these efforts, but the only way we’ll emerge from this crisis is with proper treatment and a vaccine. And we won’t beat this disease fully until we beat it everywhere, so we need to ensure vaccines and medicines reach people at risk wherever they are, regardless of nationality or income.
Here are six key questions about a COVID-19 vaccine:
What’s the current status of a COVID-19 vaccine?
There is currently no approved vaccine for COVID-19. But more than 200 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are under development. Of these, over 30 have moved to clinical trials and are being tested on humans.
What about other treatments for COVID-19?
Until a vaccine is developed, finding a treatment can improve the odds of survival for people who become infected. No treatments have been approved for use against COVID-19 yet. But at the time of writing, over 300 treatments are under development, and over 200 are in clinical trials, thanks to global partnership efforts to coordinate and accelerate research and development. The most promising treatment options are drugs that already exist to combat other diseases and could also be effective against COVID-19.
How long does it normally take to develop a vaccine?
Research and development of new vaccines can take an average of 10 years under normal circumstances, although some are developed faster as we’ve seen with previous outbreaks. Taking a vaccine from conception to the clinic is usually a long path and for good reason. It is essential to show that vaccines are safe and effective, so they undergo rigorous testing in multiple phases before they reach humans.
What will it take to develop a COVID-19 vaccine?
We can’t wait for business as usual with COVID-19. We need to throw all we have at R&D and build the capability to get the successful vaccine and treatment to everyone who needs it — and fast. Governments, business, and philanthropists need to step up. This includes investing billions to fund research, development, and supply of treatments for all, and support for public health measures in countries with the weakest health systems.
Given the urgency of this outbreak, governments may allow experimental vaccines to be given to high risk patients before they are approved for widespread use. The process could also be accelerated with World Health Organization pre-qualification, meaning the vaccine has met international standards for safety and efficacy. That designation allows Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the UN to procure the vaccine for at-risk countries
What does global vaccine distribution typically look like?
There is a typical lag of up to seven years from the time a new medication or vaccine is first licensed in a developed country to the time developing countries have access. This delay in access is often due to a lack of global coordination, including a failure to share findings between countries and different national requirements.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that diseases do not respect borders. If COVID is spreading anywhere, it is a threat to people everywhere. Once identified, an effective vaccine or treatment must be made available to all people regardless of their wealth or nationality.
How can we ensure equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine?
We cannot afford to leave the most vulnerable behind. We need to level the playing field now to ensure a COVID-19 vaccine is available everywhere because we won’t beat this disease fully until we beat it everywhere. So we need to ensure any vaccines that are shown to be effective reach people at risk wherever they are, regardless of nationality or income.
There are challenges: Delivering medication and vaccines at this speed and scale has never been done before. And we need to ensure not just speed and safety, but also equity.
To ensure equal access, we must protect universal access and affordability — regardless of nationality or socioeconomic status — by ensuring the initial supply of medicines and vaccines are not siphoned off to the highest bidder. We must secure the supply of COVID-19 medications and vaccines by investing in global and regional capacity-building, and by sharing knowledge, because the more places that have the know-how to produce a vaccine, the more supply there will be to meet demand.