On Sunday, Dec 13, the first trucks rolled out of a manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan carrying precious cargo.
The vaccines stored at sub-zero temperatures in boxes made their way onto cargo planes and were shipped to all 50 states and U.S territories.
On Monday, just as the U.S reported a staggering 300,000 deaths, the first vaccines were administered to physicians, nurses and hospital workers. This is the beginning of a mass immunization program to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Last week, the United Kingdom began its immunization program as well.
Let's look at the challenges and how the different countries are handling them.
So far, the only approved vaccines are from Pfizer-BioNTech, a collaboration between a U.S and German company.
After successful final stage results, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines were approved for use in the U.K on Dec 3, and the U.S on Dec 11. Four other countries that have approved the vaccines are Canada, Mexico, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
However, the vaccines are being distributed very differently in the U.S compared to the U.K. In the U.K, the entire immunization program is being run centrally from London, with vaccines dispatched to hospitals across the country. On the other hand, the U.S has left it to the states to prioritize and distribute the vaccine.
The U.S has signed up for 40 million doses of the vaccine, and since each person needs two shots, there is enough for 20 million people. Hence priority is being given to frontline workers, residents of nursing homes, and high-risk individuals. Also, since the Pfizer vaccines need to be stored at Arctic-like temperatures of minus 70 Celsius (-94F), they cannot be shipped to rural areas in vast countries such as the U.S and Canada where there aren't sufficient freezer capabilities.
With promising news from Moderna which is likely to be approved in the U.S this Friday, more vaccines will be on the way. The good news with Moderna's vaccine is that it uses the same mRNA technology (described here) as Pfizer-BioNTech, and can be refrigerated at room temperatures, making them easy to distribute.
The Rest Of The World Waits...
With rich countries getting the first claims on the vaccine, how many will the rest of the world get? According to UNICEF, the lower-income countries will have enough to only vaccinate 20% of their population by the end of 2021. A complete immunization program where every citizen is vaccinated might take until 2024!
With several vaccine makers rushing to develop vaccines, the rich countries have hedged their bets and pre-ordered vaccines from all of them. According to the New York Times, if all the vaccines are approved and come through, the "European Union could inoculate its residents twice, Britain and the United States could do so four times over, and Canada six times over!"
China, India, and Russia are developing their own homegrown vaccines which are still in the testing phases. If they do end up with excess, the rich countries are being asked to donate their vaccines after their citizens have received the two doses.
Sources: NY Times, BBC, Al Jazeera