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Omicron shows why global vaccine chains should be ready for unforeseen shocks

As Covid pandemic moves to epidemic conditions with regional hotspots, caution must be taken because any fault line in global vaccine supply can be cataclysmic.

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The coronavirus pandemic encouraged a great deal of international collaboration amongst researchers, private sector, funders, and regulators to expedite the development of Covid-19 vaccines without compromising safety and efficacy. Accelerated approvals, supportive regulatory environment, and tireless research by scientists led to the first vaccine being developed and tested in less than twelve months after the first case was officially reported in China in December 2019. Now as the Omicron variant rears its head, booster doses specific to it are being discussed

But there is a need to sustain this collaborative ecosystem for manufacturers to develop, produce, and commercialise vaccines not specific to SARS-CoV2. This would require functional, end-to-end supply chain and logistic systems that enable appropriate vaccine storage, distribution, handling, and waste management. This article outlines four specific suggestions to sustain this ecosystem beyond the current pandemic to have a long-lasting impact on the future of vaccine science.

Collaboration among domestic stakeholders

The coronavirus pandemic has shown the power of science-industry collaboration. This partnership was successful because businesses were ready to risk their investments and regulatory agencies streamlined their approval process to fast-track the development of the Covid vaccine to tackle an unprecedented situation. This innovation ecosystem should be sustained for it to be leveraged for diseases other than the current pandemic. This is possible only through a supportive regulatory environment, cooperative funding agencies, and strong industry-academia collaboration. Moreover, critical components for vaccine production, including skilled workforce, should be kept in reserve to support vaccine manufacturers to meet the increasing demand in case of future pandemics. 


 Also read: Delta, booster shots mean Covid vaccines could become a viable business. And that’s a problem


Maintaining global vaccine supply

The Covid pandemic now moving to epidemic conditions with regional hotspots is a somewhat positive indicator, but caution must be taken as any fault line in the global vaccine supply can be cataclysmic. While the world is still managing to address the challenges in the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain, countries should also prepare to develop resilient supply chains to tackle future pandemics. Governments should leverage learnings from this pandemic to promote vaccine research, support development, and facilitate access to prevent future pandemics. Moreover, global health agencies, national governments, multilateral development banks, financial institutions, vaccine manufacturers, researchers, and distributors should also harmonise their strategies to identify diseases of national and international importance and orchestrate a globally distributed robust vaccine supply chain to prepare for future pandemics. 

Equitable distribution of vaccine globally 

While developing a vaccine in such a short time frame is a remarkable achievement of human endeavour, questions about global inequity become more poignant with the emergence of Omicron, a heavily mutated coronavirus strain in Africa, where only 7 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. Identification of this mutated virus strain in Africa highlights the risk posed by large, unvaccinated populations in the developing world to global health security. Thus, it is important for countries with existing manufacturing capacities to share technology and knowledge needed to develop vaccines, diversify their production to regions with limited capacity, and develop emergency plans to respond to unprecedented situations. Nations should also work towards establishing international support to implement a coordinated strategy, backed by additional financing for low- and middle-income countries, to vaccinate the world, and prevent risks to global public health.


Also read: Equal access to vaccines isn’t just about health. It’s also about economic recovery


Tackling vaccine hesitancy 

Despite tireless efforts of researchers to increase the supply of Covid-19 vaccines globally, demand seems to be an emerging problem. This can be attributed to growing vaccine hesitancy, which some industry leaders now highlight as the greatest threat in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic. There are certain factors that contribute to this hesitancy including lack of trust in the government, fear of side-effects, poor communication regarding the benefits of vaccines, and misinformation campaigns. Efforts should, therefore, be taken to promote vaccine acceptance, instil confidence, and fight misinformation. This can be addressed by either involving social leaders to proactively communicate the benefits of vaccines or by facilitating honest communication about benefits and risks of vaccines with sceptics. Further, benefits of immunisation should be incorporated in the education curricula to enhance knowledge, and non-financial incentives such as food and other goods should also be introduced to improve vaccination rates. 

Research and development of vaccines and its global distribution is a dynamic and complex process, which requires robust collaboration, partnerships between governments, manufacturers, regulatory authorities, logistical support, aid agencies, and economic cooperation among all stakeholders. All this needs to be streamlined for countries to develop secure and resilient vaccine supply chains that are ready to absorb any unprecedented shocks or unforeseen circumstances. 

This article is part of a series examining the relationship between the global and the local, in partnership with Carnegie India, leading up to its Global Technology Summit 2021 (14th-16th December 2021). Click here to register. 

Shruti Sharma is a senior research analyst with the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Views expressed are personal.

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