Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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


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. We wanted to better understand what's involved and whether the U.S. is on the right path.


So we called Prashant Yadav of the Center for Global Development. He studies medical supply chains. And he says there are multiple reasons the U.S. must engage the global community on a vaccine. For starters, the U.S. can't just be thinking of how to vaccinate its own population because if other countries can't vaccinate, there will still be risk.

PRASHANT YADAV: Yeah, so we need global collaboration for three reasons. The first is what you describe, which is just protecting U.S. population won't be sufficient for us to resume global travel and trade. The second is the spare parts components and key ingredients that go into a vaccine. That also comes from a very global supply chain. And the third is that it's also going to help us hedge our risks in terms of who has the most efficacious vaccine first. It may well be that it's not a U.S. vaccine. So global collaboration will help on all of those three fronts.

KELLY: How is the U.S. doing on the vaccine effort? American missteps on testing, on masks and other forms of PPE have been well-documented. Did the U.S. move early? Is the U.S. moving quickly enough? Does the U.S. have the right people in place to move forward on a vaccine right now?

YADAV: So firstly, 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. The effort announced a few days ago includes some very knowledgeable people who will now be working for the administration, so I think that there are good people. 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 of 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.

KELLY: I want to follow up on one thing you just mentioned - the glass vials. This is a reference to the presumably hundreds of millions of vials that we would need to fill with hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine. Even something as basic as that requires a global supply chain to get enough and to get them where they need to be.

YADAV: Yes, so both glass tubing that goes into making glass vials and the glass vials themselves are manufactured globally. We have some manufacturing capacity here in the U.S. But what I was referring to was the replacement for glass vials, which the Health and Human Services have invested. But you're right in saying that even things as simple as glass are dependent on a global supply chain.

KELLY: So big picture in understanding that no one knows exactly where the first successful vaccine may be developed - but is it possible that multiple countries who are working on this will announce successful vaccines around the same time?

YADAV: Yeah. So I think what constitutes a successful vaccine is somewhat unclear and fuzzy. I mean, we may not have a successful vaccine in the sense that it is ready to be used at, you know, widespread population level for prevention in a country. But we may have earlier vaccines, which are more about smaller population groups, controlling outbreaks or applicable only in a specific age group 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 occur on? Or do countries and health systems stop paying attention to one or two as compared to just everyone scrambling to get the one vaccine? And that will determine whether our manufacturing capacity can be more distributed - or will it be all towards one vaccine?

KELLY: So many moving parts - Prashant Yadav, thank you.

YADAV: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: He's a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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