Thursday, May 14, 2020

The knotty problem of how to distribute a coronavirus vaccine

An interesting problem will arise if and when a working vaccine for COVID-19 is ever developed.
French pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi is one of the front-runners in the race to create a vaccine. The company's CEO Paul Hudson set off a fire-storm of outrage yesterday when he said, "The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it's invested in taking the risk". French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe shot back, "A vaccine against  COVID-19 should be a public good for the world. The equal access of all to the vaccine is non-negotiable." Which is just what the World Health Organization has been saying all along, as have most other civilized nations. Sanofi's public relations people then promptly walked back the CEO's comments, and assured everyone that its vaccine, when ready, will in fact be available to all coutries everywhere.
But, be that as it may, it all raises the valid question of just how that kind of equitable access would work in practice. Sanofi is a commercial company, and it will not be giving anything away. Will sub-Saharan Africa be able to pay for it? And how do we ensure that ALL countries receive some (there are around 200 countries in the world, depending on how you count them), particularly in the early stages? It will just not be possible to ship adequate supplies to the whole world simultaneously - it will take quite some time to manufacture them for one thing . So somebody (in fact, lots of somebodies) is going to have to wait and watch while others receive a vaccine before them, at least for a while, which could prove vexatious.
And just how will the vaccine get distributed? Alphabetically? Good for Afghanistan and Albania, not so good for Zambia and Zimbabwe. One dose for you, one dose for you, etc, etc, rinse and repeat 8 billion times? The logistics are just unfathomable.
Of course, it's a moot point right now, because we don't have a working vaccine yet and, the confident and optimistic spin of pharmaceutical companies and Donald Trump notwithstanding, it's probably going to be the best part of a year at the very earliest, and probably more like several years, before we do (if ever!). But I hope that someone somewhere is working on the knotty problems of mass production and distribution.

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