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What does it take to bring a Covid-19 vaccine into the world?

Once a vaccine is approved, the greatest logistical challenge in history will have to be overcome to get it worldwide


18th November 2020

By Carrie Arnold

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, millions of vials containing a Covid-19 vaccine could soon roll off the production line. There are still many hurdles to overcome before this vaccine – the candidate of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech – or any other is approved and marketed, but governments, manufacturers and shipping companies around the world have already spent months trying to prepare for what happens next.

This is a simple but easy to miss fact: a vaccine is useless in itself. “Vaccines don’t save lives,” says Kelly Moore of the Immunization Action Coalition in the United States. “Vaccination does.”

When a Covid-19 vaccine is approved, it sets off an amazingly complex chain of events. These events need to take place in perfect lockstep using a global supply chain that needs to reach even the most remote areas of the planet – the same supply chain where parts of the world desperately needed items like disposable gloves and protective gear months ago.

“The scale and scale of our activities are unprecedented,” said Orin Levine, director of vaccine delivery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The list of possible disasters has been keeping Levine up at night for months. However, overcoming these logistical challenges is required to end the pandemic. And “the key to overcoming complexity lies in planning and planning well in advance,” says Levine.

Exactly how many people need to be vaccinated to end the pandemic depends on how effective the vaccine is and how long the immunity lasts (see “Vaccine front runner”). Seth Berkley, leader of Gavi, an international group that …