Vaccine rollout may face delays
Despite global effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, international vaccination programs are being hindered by — sometimes simple — logistical issues, new reports have revealed.
Insufficient manufacturing infrastructure and incorrect handling after dispatch are creating supply shortfalls and wastage around the world, at a time when urgency is critical.
In the USA, for example, the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored in ‘ultra low temp’ freezers, is frequently being kept outside of the recommended temperature range, during and after transportation.
Any longer than six hours above minus 86° Celsius and the Pfizer vaccine has been shown to lose its efficacy, meaning it must be thrown away. In some places this has created a wastage rate of up to 30%, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Aside from the obvious impact on immediate health outcomes, experts say this delay will make it harder to achieve herd immunity — the ‘gold standard’ in the fight against the pandemic. For herd immunity to happen, around 70% of the population will need to have some form of COVID-19 protection simultaneously, experts have predicted.
“We know that mRNA vaccines [like Pfizer] are really good at protecting against disease. But if a vaccination program takes [for example] three or more years to roll out among the global population, and vaccines only offer [for example] 18 months of protection, then it will be quite difficult to reach that milestone of 70%,” said Associate Professor Kathryn Glass, an epidemiologist at the Australian National University.
Moreover, a lag in getting people inoculated will give the virus more time to replicate and potentially mutate, meaning it could learn to outsmart existing vaccines.
“Viruses can mutate when they are given an opportunity to replicate in a large pool of people,” said Dr Larisa Labzin, an immunologist at the University of Queensland.
To increase global production rates, the WHO is calling for vaccine manufacturers to band together and share facilities, as part of a wider, more strategic effort to inoculate the population. While some firms have already joined forces for this purpose, there is still significant untapped potential to create efficiencies in the system, said WHO Chief, Dr Tedras Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“We need a massive scale-up in production […]. Manufacturers can do more,” he told a recent conference.
“We encourage all manufacturers to share their data and technology to ensure global equitable access to vaccines.”
To combat wastage, the Australian Government in partnership with the Australian College of Nursing is introducing mandatory training on how to handle and administer Pfizer’s vaccine.
With supplies often packaged into multi-dose vials for efficiency, this training will ensure human errors are not made between postal and medical delivery.
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