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5 key questions about COVID-19 vaccines


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the creation of safe and effective vaccines to fight the virus within a year of the first reported cases is a huge scientific achievement. It has shifted the conversation from “if” there will be an end to the pandemic to “when.”

Even with vaccines being rolled out, we know that 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. Our Vaccine Access Test monitors that progress.

To cover the basics, here are five key questions about COVID-19 vaccines.

How many COVID-19 vaccines are there?

As of April 2021, there are safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. In December 2020, the first mass vaccination rollout program began and as of April 2021, it is projected that 12 billion vaccine doses could be manufactured by the end of the year, but distribution and administration are crucial to getting those vaccines to those that need them the most.

How long does it normally take to develop a vaccine?

Research and development of new vaccines can take an average of 10 years, although some are developed faster, as we’ve seen with the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines being developed within a year of the first reported cases.

Taking a vaccine from conception to the clinic is a lengthy, thorough process — 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 did it take to develop a COVID-19 vaccine?

With COVID-19, the world couldn’t wait for business as usual. An unprecedented amount of investment, research, and development went into creating safe and effective vaccines within a year of the first reported cases.

By December 2020, the World Health Organization authorized the first emergency use listing (EUL) of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. By February 2021, the WHO reported that there were “at least seven different vaccines across three platforms that [had] been rolled out in countries.” As of April 2021, there are a handful of approved safe and effective vaccines, with over 80 currently undergoing active clinical trials. And tens of billions of dollars were spent on developing vaccines to protect against COVID-19.

This is truly a historic achievement — but the work isn’t done. Now the world must invest in ensuring equal global vaccine access.

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. As we’ve seen in our series Pandemica, if the vaccine isn’t everywhere, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere — the pandemic will only end when everyone, everywhere has equal access to vaccines.

Unfortunately, Pandemica is a reality for millions of people in low-income countries right now as they wait to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, a handful of wealthier countries have purchased enough doses of vaccines to inoculate their populations and still have 1.3 billion doses left over, while less than 1% of the total doses administered globally have gone to populations in the poorest countries.

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 to ensure the COVID-19 vaccines are available everywhere, because we won’t beat this disease fully until we beat it everywhere. So we need to ensure that the vaccines reach people at risk wherever they are, regardless of nationality or income.

But challenges remain: Delivering medication and vaccines at the speed and scale needed right now 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 that vaccines reach everyone, or else the entire world is at risk of living in Pandemica.

This was originally published in August 2020 and updated in April 2021.

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