The Pandemic Issue

A lthough no one has conducted a survey on the topic, it’s safe to say that a single hope unites much of humanity at the present moment: the pros- pect of a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected some 6 million people, killed at least 350,000, and sent the global economy into a tailspin since it first appeared in China last December. Scientists are racing to make that vision a reality. As of this writing, eight vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and over 100 others are in preclinical development, in a dozen countries. Pointing to new technology and compressed testing protocols, experts predict a winner could emerge in 12 to 18 months—a fraction of the four years it took to develop the previ- ous record-holder, the mumps vaccine, in the 1960s. Teams at Oxford University and Boston-based Moderna Therapeutics say they could have a product ready even sooner, if the formulas they’re testing prove safe and effective. A just-announced White House initiative, Operation Warp Speed, aims to fast-track multiple candidates, with the goal of delivering 100 million doses in November and another 200 million by January 2021. These timetables could prove wildly over-optimistic. But even if the best-case scenario comes true, and a viable COVID-19 vaccine emerges this fall, a gargantuan challenge remains: getting the shot to everyone who needs it. Epidemiologists figure that at least 70 percent of Earth’s population—or 5.6 billion people—would have to be inoculated to achieve “herd immunity,” in which each person who catches the disease passes it to less than one other individual. “In order to stop the pandemic, we need to make the vaccine available to almost every person on the planet,” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates blogged in April, as his foundation pledged $300 million to the effort. “We’ve never delivered something to every corner of the world before.” The difficulties are partly logistical, partly political, and largely a combination of the two. Overcoming those obstacles will require unprecedented cooper- ation among national governments, international organizations, and profit-minded corporations—in an era when nationalist rivalries are rampant and global leadership is up for grabs.

That may be tougher than developing the vaccine itself.


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