Why Poorer Countries Aren't Likely To Get The Pfizer Vaccine Any Time Soon

Nov 11, 2020
Originally published on November 16, 2020 6:32 am

This week, the world heard encouraging news about a vaccine for COVID-19.

On Monday, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and its partner BioNTech, said their experimental vaccine appears to work – and work quite well. A preliminary analysis suggests the vaccine is more than 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 symptoms.

Health officials hope to start vaccinating some Americans in a few months.

"The vaccine is on its way, folks," Dr. Anthony Fauci told a crowd Tuesday, via video link, outside Brooklyn Borough Hall.

But what about the rest of world, especially people in poorer counties. Is the vaccine "on its way for them?"

Probably not, says Rachel Silverman, at the nonprofit Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C.

For starters, Pfizer can manufacture only a limited quantity of the vaccine next year – about 1.3 billion doses. "That sounds like a lot," Silverman says, "but quite a lot of that supply is already spoken for."

The U.S., U.K., E.U., Canada and Japan have already claimed, through advanced purchase agreement, about 1.1 billion doses, or more than 80% of the supply.

"What's left in that pie is not a lot," Silverman says. "For most people in low- and middle-income countries, this vaccine is not likely to be available, at least, by the end of next year."

And even if Pfizer could manufacture more doses, its vaccine probably won't work in many parts of the world. "It needs to be maintained, stored and transported at extraordinarily low temperatures," Silverman says. "And when I say extraordinarily low I mean, minus 80 degrees Celsius."

That's equivalent to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit – and much, much colder than a typical freezer, which runs at about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Pfizer vaccine requires a special ultra-cold freezer that most hospitals and clinics in the U.S. currently don't have.

"In the U.S. they're projecting it's going to be very difficult for this vaccine to be administered in just a normal doctor's office," Silverman says. "So the vaccine is probably not going to be a great option for most low- and middle-income countries."

Nevertheless, the announcement from Pfizer does offer some good news for developing countries. Many other vaccines currently under development use the same mechanism as the Pfizer vaccine. They target the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

"So the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine is good sign that other vaccines will also be effective," Silverman says. And hopefully, a few of those vaccines will be easy to store and transport as well.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, we have heard some encouraging news about a vaccine for COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The vaccine is on its way, folks, so hang in there. Hang tough. We're going to get over this together.

GREENE: That is Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking earlier this week. His comments came after the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its partner BioNTech announced that their experimental vaccine seems to be highly effective. Health officials hope to start vaccinating some Americans in a few months. But what about the rest of the world, especially families in poorer countries? Is the vaccine on its way for them? Here's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: While pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer have been racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, another race has been going on behind the scenes - the race to purchase vaccines. Countries around the world have been rapidly buying up vaccine doses before clinical trials have even finished. Dr. Krishna Udayakumar at Duke University has been closely watching the second race. His research center is partially funded by several big pharmaceutical companies. He says rich countries have already purchased or are in the process of purchasing more than 5 billion doses of experimental vaccines.

KRISHNA UDAYAKUMAR: So if you look at the U.S., Canada, the U.K., they are purchasing way more than they might need. They are purchasing more doses than they would need to vaccinate their entire populations.

DOUCLEFF: For example, the U.S. and the U.K. will potentially have enough doses to cover its population four times over.

UDAYAKUMAR: Canada could cover their population five times over.

DOUCLEFF: It almost seems like rich countries are hoarding doses. Why? No one knows which experimental vaccines will actually work, so these countries are hedging their bets.

UDAYAKUMAR: Of the five or six vaccines they may be invested in, maybe only one or two come to fruition. So it allows them to have more choices.

DOUCLEFF: This strategy is great news for the U.S. It gives Americans a better chance of having an effective vaccine next year. But this hedging strategy has a big downside for many parts of the world. It creates glaring inequalities in vaccine accessibility, and it will delay distribution of the vaccine in poor and middle-income countries. Take, for instance, the Pfizer vaccine. The company expects to manufacture about 1.3 billion doses by the end of next year. That sounds like a lot, but Rachel Silverman at the Center for Global Development says wealthy countries have already claimed more than 80% of those doses.

RACHEL SILVERMAN: What's left in that pie is not a lot. The takeaway message is for most people in low- and middle income-countries, this vaccine is not likely to be available at least by the end of next year.

DOUCLEFF: And even if there were doses available, Silverman says the Pfizer vaccine probably won't work in many parts of the world.

SILVERMAN: It needs to be maintained, stored, transported at extraordinarily low temperatures. And when I say extraordinarily low, I mean negative 80 degrees Celsius.

DOUCLEFF: That's much, much colder than a typical freezer and requires very specialized equipment, equipment that's just not available in the vast majority of hospitals and clinics, even in the U.S.

SILVERMAN: In the U.S., they're projecting that it's going to be very difficult for the vaccine to be administered, for example, in just a normal doctor's office. So that's probably not going to be a great option for most low- and middle-income countries.

DOUCLEFF: So while here in the U.S., a COVID vaccine may be on its way, as Fauci said Tuesday, some families in poorer countries will likely have to wait until 2023 before they get immunized.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.