Coronavirus: How will the world vaccinate seven billion?

Teams across 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 shared endeavour of our lifetimes”.

But away from the high-tech science of finding a winning formula, what about the logistics of rolling out a vaccine to seven billion people worldwide?

In the UK, the heart of that effort is at the Harwell Science Campus, on an ex-RAF airbase in Oxfordshire.

It is going to be the UK’s Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC), plans for which have been brought forward by Covid-19.

“We’ve really compressed the timeline into almost half. So whereas we were expecting to have it ready at the end of 2022, we’re now hoping to have it online in 2021,” explains Matthew Duchars, chief executive of VMIC.

‘Like baking a cake’
Mr Duchars is yet to take a summer holiday because he knows that this place could end up producing the Oxford University vaccine. He’s in constant touch with the team at the Jenner Institute, just down the road in Oxford.

He says it’s a heavy responsibility.

“It’s critically important, not just for the country but globally, to be able to produce these types of vaccines quickly and effectively,” he says.

“To use an analogy – it’s like baking a cake at home. You can spend hours preparing the perfect cake and now you’ve got to go out and bake 70 million of them and they all have to be perfect, so it’s quite a challenge.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Oxford University has already had to secure enough temporary lab space to start manufacturing its vaccine now, even before it knows the results of its global trials.

Ultimately, the human race will need to make billions of doses of several types of Covid-19 vaccines. They will all have to be manufactured, distributed and administered across the globe.

The international vaccines alliance – Gavi – is urging countries to start thinking about vaccine rollout now.

But it’s not easy to get international co-operation, because many rich countries are already doing bilateral deals with drug companies to make sure they can secure supplies if the magic formula is found.

Overcoming self-interest
Seth Berkley, Gavi’s CEO, says one of the biggest hurdles he’s facing is so-called “vaccine nationalism”.

“I think we need all countries to be thinking about this in a globally minded way, partially because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s a self-interest issue,” he says.

“If you have large reservoirs of virus circulating in surrounding countries, you can’t go back to your normal trade, travel or movement of people. It’s really important to have that mindset: we’re not safe, unless everybody is safe.”