Will We Win the Race to Vaccinate the World From COVID-19?

The final chapter could be the hardest.
Brad Bergan

Pfizer has said it expects to cut the period required to produce a batch of COVID-19 vaccine in half — from 110 days to an average of 60 days — while the pharmaceutical firm increases its production efficiency, according to an initial report from USA TODAY.

This comes in response to requests from the U.S. president to hurry production — and bring the COVID-19 crisis to a conclusion. But what are the bottlenecks stopping us from reaching the end?

COVID-19 vaccine output doubled in last month

Pfizer's accelerated vaccine rollout could enhance the nation's capability to ease distribution bottlenecks triggered by shortages in the vaccine's supply.

"We call this 'Project Light Speed,' and it's called that for a reason," said Pfizer's Chaz Calitri, vice president for operations for sterile injectables, who heads the company's Kalamazoo, Michigan, plant — according to the USA TODAY report. "Just in the last month we've doubled output."

Vaccine manufacturers face new challenges every day

However, the increase didn't come as a surprise, said Robert Van Exan, president of a vaccine production consulting firm called Immunization Policy and Knowledge Translation.

"Nobody's ever produced mRNA vaccines at this scale, so you can bet your bottom dollar the manufacturers are learning as they go," said Van Exan. "I bet you they run into some vaccine challenge and every day they solve it, and that goes into their playbook."

Coronavirus variants spreading rapidly

However, the final stage of vaccinating the world from the COVID-19 illness will be a harrowing journey — possibly more so than is generally expected. There were more people in the U.S. reported dead from the COVID-19 illness on Friday, Feb. 5 than on any day of the preceding year.

Additionally, the U.S. is still slated to tally more than 80,000 deaths from COVID-19 per month, while new and worrying coronavirus variants from Brazil, South Africa, and the U.K. are spreading alarmingly fast.

Achieving 75 percent vaccination requires 1.5 million shots per day

These latest variants were declared more contagious and deadly than the initial virus behind the pandemic — which could bring progress against the virus to a halt, and perhaps even reverse it.

"If we don't accelerate the pace of vaccinations, we're looking at an apocalypse," said a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine named Peter Hotez, to The Atlantic. "We've got to figure out a way to get ahead of the variants to avoid 1 million deaths by the end of this year."

To vaccinate 75% of the U.S. population before summer hits calls for hundreds of millions of doses by June. This goal is much higher than President Biden's earlier aim for the country to administer 1 million shots per day — and still beyond the current rate of roughly 1.5 million shots per day.

Releasing AstraZeneca vaccine could hasten rollout

For the nation to reach the goal of vaccinating three-quarters of the population, we will need closer to 3 million shots per day. To make this a reality, we have to widen the bottlenecks of production and dissemination.

Several ambitious ideas were raised to resolve the challenges confronting the race to vaccinate the country. "The first out-of-the-box thing I'd do right now is release the AstraZeneca vaccine," said Hotez to The Atlantic.

Administering all vaccine doses to maximize first shots

As of writing, the U.S. has tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has already received authorization for emergency use in the U.K. and the European Union. But since the vaccine's research in the U.K. and Brazil didn't go smoothly, the FDA is awaiting more clinical trial data, to confirm the drug's efficacy.

Experts could also stretch the supply by immediately administering the maximum number of first shots. The obvious advantage to this is funneling a much larger sector of the population into the vaccination process. The downside entails trusting the supply chain to provide the second shot in a timely manner.

Race to vaccinate world from COVID-19 is a universal struggle

While there are other challenges to vaccinating the entire U.S. population against the virus, the final one involves human psychology. Roughly 40% or more of several groups — some republicans, some Black people, and some citizens without a college education have said they "probably" or "definitely" won't get the vaccine. If this multi-group sector of the population doesn't warm to the idea of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, coronavirus variants may run wild in areas of the country where these demographics are concentrated.

These challenges are serious — with some (like the human psychology of vaccine skepticism) not easily remedied. However we move forward, the impetus is on everyone — from scientists and researchers at pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer to public servants at the FDA and even "everyday people" — to forge the final leg of the COVID-19 crisis

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