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Why The Race For A Coronavirus Vaccine Will Depend On Global Cooperation

A researcher works on the diagnosis of suspected COVID-19 cases in Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on March 26, 2020.
Douglas Magno
AFP via Getty Images
A researcher works on the diagnosis of suspected COVID-19 cases in Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on March 26, 2020.

These days, it seems any morsel of good news about a coronavirus vaccine sends hopes — and markets — soaring.

The reality is, developing and producing a vaccine is an incredibly complicated process — one that is heavily reliant on global cooperation, says Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Yadav says cooperation is necessary for a number of reasons. For one, "just protecting U.S. population won't be sufficient for us to resume global travel and trade," he says.

Then there's the matter of simple logistics. Assuming U.S. researchers are able to discover a vaccine, the spare parts, components and ingredients that would go into manufacturing it all come from a global supply chain.

Cooperation is also a way for the U.S. to hedge its own risks "in terms of who has the most efficacious vaccine first," says Yadav. "It may well be that it's not a U.S. vaccine, so global cooperation will help on all of those three fronts."

Yadav, who has been working around the world to improve health care supply chains, spoke with All Things Considered on Wednesday about the race for a vaccine. Here are highlights from the conversation.

How is the U.S. doing on the vaccine effort?

So, first thing, I think we have some of the top scientists for vaccine development and for vaccine manufacturing and looking at all of these novel platforms here in the U.S. ... Somewhere along the way we backtracked on global collaboration, which may hurt us in some ways. And then I think there's also efforts being put in place — one notable one is a public/private partnership that Health and Human Services announced a week or so ago to make new technology for syringes and vaccine containers, which will relieve the global supply chain of some of the pressures in glass vials.

So some things are moving well, especially when it comes to things that manufacturing scientists and clinical scientists control. Things which are about making sure that our global diplomacy is working, things that are about making sure that we work with this in a multilateral coordinated manner, those are where I think we see some deficiencies.

Is it possible that multiple countries who are working on this will announce successful vaccines around the same time?

Yeah, so I think what constitutes successful vaccine is somewhat unclear and fuzzy, right? I mean, we may not have a successful vaccine in the sense that it is ready to be used at widespread population level for prevention in a country, but we may have earlier vaccines which are more of our smaller population groups, controlling outbreaks or applicable only in specific age groups, and so on. So I think what is most likely going to happen is that we would have a number of vaccines with slightly varying efficacy profile characteristics around the same time, and then it will be a question of which vaccine does the global convergence circle around or do countries and health systems start paying attention to one or two as compared to just everyone scrambling to get the one vaccine. And that will determine whether the manufacturing capacity can be more distributed or will it be all towards one vaccine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.