vaccine

Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

A small subset of hospitals and institutions in high-risk areas are likely to go first, according to bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

(© Ljupco Smokovski/Adobe)

There is a huge amount riding on the discovery of a vaccine effective against the Covid-19 virus.

Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests despite months of trying to meet demand.

The world is waiting for a vaccine that can liberate everyone from the constraints on liberty required by existing efforts to fight the virus with public health measures such as masks, isolation, and quarantining. President Trump, for the most part, has rejected tough public health measures. Instead he has staked his political future and those of the governors and Congressional Republicans who have followed his lead on delivering a vaccine before Election Day as the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA. Many scientific experts have been sounding encouraging notes about having a vaccine by the end of this year or early next, as have many CEOs among the more than 160 companies chasing various strategies to identify a safe and effective vaccine.

But the reality is that no matter how fast a vaccine appears, those who might benefit will face a significant period of time before they could receive one. This is due to a variety of realities. Any vaccine faces various regulatory hurdles to insure safety and efficacy. This means completing large-scale studies in tens of thousands of subjects hoping for enough cases of blunted natural infection versus a large placebo control group to determine that a vaccine works. And that takes time--plus adding in delays in manufacturing and delivery, which will create logjams for most prospective recipients.

Shipping is not going to be easy with cold chain storage requirements from -20 to -70 degrees Celsius, from factory to a doctor's office, depending on the vaccine. In addition, many of the vaccines under development require two doses--that is 660 million shots to cover just those in the United States. Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests, despite months of trying to meet demand.

There are three scenarios under which a vaccine can appear but without being in any way available to all Americans.

The first is a vaccine under development in the USA or with some USA financing begins to show promise before a full clinical trial is completed. Current vaccine trials are supervised by Data Safety and Monitoring Boards and those committees could tell a CEO eager to be first to market that their vaccine is looking good at the study's half-way point.

The CEO and vaccine manufacturing company's board then let the White House know that a magic bullet which can ensure the President's reelection is in hand. The President, as he has done many times with other COVID treatments, most recently convalescent plasma, intervenes with the FDA and demands approval using an Emergency Use Authorization, or invoking the Federal Right to Try law he and Mike Pence are constantly touting. FDA Commissioner Steve Hahn folds and an extremely limited supply of vaccine, maybe only 100,000 doses, is available just before Election Day.

The second scenario is that another nation discovers a vaccine that looks safe and effective and the USA is able to buy some supply of it. But again, we are likely, initially, to get an extremely limited amount.

Lastly, the vaccine is approved in a standard manner. A full randomized trial is done, the endpoints are met, and no serious adverse events are identified. It is a USA-funded vaccine so most of it is coming here first. Still the vials and needles and plugs need to be quality-controlled and shipped and stored at the right temperatures. Information sheets and consent forms need to be readied, offered, and signed. Odds are you won't see any of this vaccine until late next year. So, who is going to get the first shots?

Some people under all of these scenarios are going to say, "Count me out." They don't trust vaccines or they don't trust the government to provide a safe one. Others may say, "The first one out of the box may be OK, but I am going to wait for the 'best' one before I take one." Even if those numbers are large, it is still certain that there will be more takers than can be vaccinated.

If you look at the discussion of vaccine rationing, almost everybody — including government officials, FDA officials, advisory panelists and ethicists — says the first group that should get vaccinated are at-risk healthcare workers. They say it, although they're not always clear about why.

One reason is that you need to give it to health care workers first because they will keep the healthcare system going. Another is that you need to give it to them first because they face more risk and they should get rewarded for having done and continuing to do that -- their bravery ought to be rewarded and their risk reduced.

A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will [go first] and that will be it for a significant period of time.

Both of these arguments for health care worker priority are not completely convincing. Food and power and vaccine manufacturing are arguably as important as health care, but workers in those areas don't get priority attention in most guidelines. And many Americans face risks from COVID comparable to health care workers, especially those who are not on the front lines in ERs and ICUs. Prisoners, military personnel who work on warships, the elderly, nursing home residents, and poor minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID. However, none of them are going first, nor is it clear how to weigh their claims in competing against one another for a scarce vaccine.

But, there's something else that's interesting in deciding who goes first. When people all agree, as they almost always do, that it's health care workers who must go first, a huge problem remains. What is the definition of who's a healthcare worker? You could easily get millions and millions of people designated as healthcare workers who would have a claim to go first.

We normally think that health care worker means doctors and nurses. But, if we go beyond those who work in ERs and ICUs, the number is big. And we must, because no ER or ICU can run without huge numbers of supporting individuals.

If you don't vaccinate lab technicians, people who clean the rooms, make food, transport patients, provide security, do the laundry, run the IT, students, volunteers and so on, you're not going to have a functioning hospital. If you don't include those working in nursing homes, home care and hospices along with those making and supplying vital equipment and bringing in patients via ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks, you don't have a functioning ICU, much less a health care system.

The total number involved could easily exceed tens of millions depending on how broadly the definition is set.

So, what is likely to happen is that health care workers will not go first. A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will and that will be it for a significant period of time. Health care institutions in hot spots, plus the supporting services they need will go first and then vaccine availability will slowly expand to other health care institutions and the essential workers needed to keep them functioning. Then consideration will also be given to how best to control the spread of the virus in selecting hot spots versus saving prisoners or the poor. And you can be sure, whatever the guidelines are, that the military and security folks will demand their share.

For many, many months if not a year or more, most people will not have to face a choice about vaccinating. The supply just won't be there for the general public. It is a small sample of high-risk health care workers including vaccine manufacturing employees and shippers, plus essential workers to keep hospitals and nursing homes going, who will be first in line. Odds are you and your family will still be wearing masks and social distancing well into next year.

Arthur Caplan
Dr. Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Prior to coming to NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Caplan was the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, where he created the Center for Bioethics and the Department of Medical Ethics. Caplan has also taught at the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Center for Biomedical Ethics, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University. He is the author or editor of thirty-five books and over 725 papers in peer reviewed journals. His most recent books are The Ethics of Sport (Oxford University Press, 2016 with Brendan Parent), and Vaccination Ethics and Policy (MIT Press, 2017 with Jason Schwartz).

Because vaccination may be less effective in older people, it is imperative to test now whether immune boosters could help the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine in the elderly.

(© thodonal/Adobe)

In our April 23rd editorial for this magazine, we argued that addressing the COVID-19 pandemic requires that we both fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus and fortify the human hosts who are most vulnerable to it.

Two recent phase 2 studies in older adults have suggested that a new category of drugs called rapalogues can in some cases increase the immunization capacity of older adults.

Because people over 70 account for more than 80 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths globally, this means we must do everything possible to protect our elders.

A range of recent studies have suggested that systemic knobs might metaphorically be turned to slow the cellular aging process, making us better able to fight off the many diseases correlated with aging. These types of systemic changes might be used to stem the specific decline in immunity caused by aging and to increases the biological capacity of elderly people to effectively fight viral infection.

But while helping make older people more resilient in the face of a viral infection is critical, that's not the only way geroscience can help in our fight against this deadly pandemic.

As we move toward hopefully developing one or more COVID-19 vaccines, researchers must more fully appreciate the ways in which traditional vaccines can be less effective in older people than in younger ones.

Repeated studies have shown that the flu vaccine, for example, has lower efficacy in older people than in younger ones. Older people tend to develop fewer antibodies after being vaccinated because a subset of their white blood cells, called T cells, have become less responsive over time. Some inflammatory peptides that increase with aging are also preventing the action of those T cells.

This is why there's a distinct possibility that a future COVD-19 vaccine, particularly one utilizing the traditional attenuated virus approach, could be less effective in older people than in younger ones.

Given the extreme urgency of developing vaccines that work well for everyone, we need to make sure that researchers are exploring all of the ways our elders can be best protected. While generating a vaccine that works equally well for people of all ages would be ideal, we can't count on that.

One way to bridge this gap might be to trick the bodies of older people into behaving as if they are younger just at the moment what a vaccine is delivered by giving them pre-immunization boosters.

Two recent phase 2 studies in older adults have suggested that a new category of drugs called rapalogues can in some cases increase the immunization capacity of older adults. Use of the drug for a short time period before flu shot immunization increased the antibody production for the flu and resulted in a 52 percent decrease in the occurrence of severe diseases needing medical help or hospitalization. This short-term pre-immunization intervention can also decrease the severity of serious respiratory tract infections, the deadliest manifestations of COVID-19, by similar magnitude. These patients also had almost half the incidence of the non-COVID-19 coronaviruses associated with the common cold.

The fact that those people were protected by treatment before hospitalization suggests metformin may have a role in boosting the vaccination of older people.

An inexpensive generic drug called metformin similarly targets the decline in immunity and inflammation (and extends health span and lifespan) in animals and has been used for decades to protect against the flu. A recent paper from a hospital in Wuhan, China showed that mortality of elderly COVID-19 diabetic patients on metformin was 25 percent less than that of patients with diabetes but not on metformin.

Another study from the U.S. showed that COVID-19 patients on metformin had a 20 percent decrease in mortality and lower inflammation. The fact that those people were protected by treatment before hospitalization suggests metformin may have a role in boosting the vaccination of older people.

We don't yet know whether rapalogues or metformin could be used as COVID-19 immunization boosters, not least because we don't have those vaccines. But we can and should make sure that all vaccine trials including older subjects also consider offering a subset of those subjects appropriate doses of rapalogues or metformin to explore whether doing so can boost the efficacy of a given vaccine.

If we weren't in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, we would have more time to test our vaccines slowly and sequentially. In the context of the current crisis, however, testing whether immunization boosters might increase the efficacy of potential COVID-19 vaccines for older adults is at the very least a hypothesis worth exploring.

Jamie Metzl And Nir Barzilai
Jamie Metzl is a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, a Singularity University Exponential Medicine faculty member, and the author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity (paperback release April 7). @jamiemetzl. Nir Barzilai is a Professor of Medicine and Genetics and the Director of the Institute for Aging research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Scientific Director of the American Federation for Aging Research and the author of Age Later: Healthspan, Lifespan, and the New Science of Longevity (June 2020). Dr. Nir Barzilai is the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Human Aging Research and of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging. He is the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research, professor in the Departments of Medicine and Genetics, and member of the Diabetes Research Center and of the Divisions of Endocrinology & Diabetes and Geriatrics. Dr. Barzilai’s research interests are in the biology and genetics of aging.

As scientists race to develop a safe and effective vaccine, companies and governments must figure out how to distribute affordable doses all over the world as fast as possible.

(Illustration sourced from the U.N.'s Creative Content Hub, a collection of free artwork generously donated by creators "to educate, uplift, and inspire people all across the world through the global COVID pandemic crisis."; Photo © by Dzmitry/Adobe)


Although no one has conducted a survey on the topic, it's safe to say that a single hope unites much of humanity at the present moment: the prospect of a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 9 million people worldwide, killed nearly 500,000, and sent the global economy into a tailspin since it first appeared in China last December.

"We've never delivered something to every corner of the world before."

Scientists are racing to make that vision a reality. As of this writing, 11 vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and over 100 others are in preclinical development, in a dozen countries. Pointing to new technology and compressed testing protocols, experts predict a winner could emerge in 12 to 18 months—a fraction of the four years it took to develop the previous record-holder, the mumps vaccine, in the 1960s. Teams at Oxford University and Boston-based Moderna Therapeutics say they could have a product ready even sooner, if the formulas they're testing prove safe and effective. A just-announced White House initiative, Operation Warp Speed, aims to fast-track multiple candidates, with the goal of delivering 100 million doses in November and another 200 million by January 2021.

These timetables could prove wildly over-optimistic. But even if the best-case scenario comes true, and a viable COVID-19 vaccine emerges this fall, a gargantuan challenge remains: getting the shot to everyone who needs it. Epidemiologists figure that at least 70 percent of Earth's population—or 5.6 billion people—would have to be inoculated to achieve "herd immunity," in which each person who catches the disease passes it to less than one other individual. "In order to stop the pandemic, we need to make the vaccine available to almost every person on the planet," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates blogged in April, as his foundation pledged $300 million to the effort. "We've never delivered something to every corner of the world before."

The difficulties are partly logistical, partly political, and largely a combination of the two. Overcoming those obstacles will require unprecedented cooperation among national governments, international organizations, and profit-minded corporations—in an era when nationalist rivalries are rampant and global leadership is up for grabs.

That may be tougher than developing the vaccine itself.

Logistical Conundrums

Manufacturing and distributing billions of vaccine doses would be a daunting task even in the most harmonious of times. Take the packaging problem. The vaccines under development range from old-school (based on inactivated or weakened viruses) to cutting-edge (using snippets of RNA or DNA to train the immune system to attack the invader). Some may work better than others for different patient groups—the young versus the elderly, for example. All, however, must be stored in vials and administered with syringes.

Among the handful of U.S. companies that manufacture such products, many must import the special glass tubing for vials, as well as the polypropylene for syringe barrels and the rubber or silicone for stoppers and plungers. These materials are commonly sourced from China and India, where lockdowns and export bans restrict supply. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), claims he was ignored when he warned the Trump Administration that a medical-glass shortage was looming before the coronavirus crisis hit; securing enough to vaccinate 300 million Americans, he told Congress in May, could take up to two years.

Getting the vaccine to poorer countries presents further hurdles. To begin with, there's refrigeration. Inactivated or live vaccines must be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Centigrade (or 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit); RNA or DNA vaccines typically require much colder temperatures—as low as -80 degrees. This makes storage and transport challenging in parts of the world that lack reliable electricity.

Tracking vaccine distribution is another conundrum for low- to-middle-income countries. "Supply chain management is really about information," explains Rebecca Weintraub, assistant professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Better Evidence project at Harvard's Ariadne Labs. "It's about leveraging data to determine demand, predict behavior, and understand the flow of the product itself." Systems for collecting and analyzing such data can be hard to find in poorer regions, she notes. What's more, many people in those areas lack any type of ID card, making it difficult to know who has or hasn't received a vaccine.

Weintraub and two coauthors published an article in April in the Harvard Business Review, suggesting solutions to these and other developing-world problems: solar direct-drive refrigerators, app-based data-capture systems, biometric digital IDs. But such measures—not to mention purchasing adequate supplies of vaccine—would require massive funding.

And that's where the logistical begins to overlap with the political.

Global Access Versus "Vaccine Nationalism"

An array of institutions have already begun laying the groundwork for achieving worldwide, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. In February, the World Bank and the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) cohosted a global consultation on funding vaccine development and manufacturing. In late April, the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with dozens of governments, nonprofits, and industry leaders, launched a program called the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator to expedite such efforts.

Soon afterward, the European Union, along with six countries and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, held a Coronavirus Global Response telethon that raised $8 billion to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance—a public-private partnership that subsidizes immunization in low-income countries. The United States and Russia, however, chose not to participate.

This snub by the world's remaining superpower and one of its principal challengers worried many observers. "I am concerned about what I call vaccine nationalism," CEPI executive director Richard Hatchett told the Los Angeles Times. "That's the tension between obligations elected leaders will feel to protect the lives of their citizens" versus the imperative for global sharing.

Some signs point to a possible rerun of the hoarding that accompanied the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, when wealthy nations bought up virtually all vaccine supplies—denying them to poorer countries, and sometimes to one another. Operation Warp Speed has declared an "America First" policy for any vaccine arising from its efforts. Pharma giant Sanofi recently suggested that it would take a similar approach, since the U.S. was first to fund the company's COVID-19 research. (Sanofi's CEO backtracked after officials in France, where the firm is headquartered, protested.) The Oxford group, which is partnering with British-based drug maker AstraZeneca, intends to prioritize Great Britain.

Yet momentum is building for more generous strategies as well. In May, over 100 current and former world leaders, along with prominent economists and public health experts, issued an open letter calling for a "people's vaccine" for COVID-19, which would be patent-free, distributed globally, and available to all countries free of charge. At the WHO's annual World Health Assembly, all 194 member states accepted a resolution urging that vaccines for the disease be made available as a "global public good"—though the U.S. dissociated itself from a clause proposing a patent pool to keep costs down, which it argued might disincentivize "innovators who will be essential to the solutions the whole world needs."

Gavi, for its part, plans to launch a mechanism designed to encourage those innovators while promoting accessibility: an advance market commitment, in which countries pledge to purchase a vaccine, with no money down. Future contributions will be based on the value of the product to their health systems and their ability to pay.

"It's essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere."

A few private-sector players are stepping up, too. U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson, which has received nearly half a billion dollars from the federal government for COVID-19 vaccine research, has promised to provide up to 900 million doses on a not-for-profit basis, if its trials pan out. Other companies have agreed to produce vaccines on a "cost-plus" basis, with a smaller-than-usual profit margin.

How Sharing Can Pay Off

No one knows how all this will work out if and when a vaccine becomes available. (Another wild card: Trump has announced that he is cutting U.S. ties to the WHO over its alleged favoritism toward China, which could hobble the agency's ability to coordinate distribution -- though uncertainty remains about the process of withdrawal and reversing course may still be possible.) To public health experts, however, it's clear that ensuring accessibility is not just a matter of altruism.

"A historic example is smallpox," Rebecca Weintraub observes. "When it kept getting reintroduced into high-income countries from low-income countries, the rich countries realized it was worth investing in the vaccine for countries that couldn't afford it." After a two-decade campaign led by the WHO, the last case of this ancient scourge was diagnosed in 1977.

Conversely, vaccine nationalism doesn't just hurt poor countries. During the H1N1 pandemic, which killed an estimated 284,000 people worldwide, production problems led to shortages in the United States. But Australia stopped a domestic manufacturer from exporting doses to the U.S until all Aussies had been immunized.

Such considerations, Weintraub believes, might help convince even the most reluctant rich-country leaders that an accessible vaccine—if deployed in an epidemiologically targeted way—would serve both the greater good and the national interest. "I suspect the pressures put on our politicians to act globally will be significant," she says.

Other analysts share her guarded optimism. Kelly Moore, who teaches health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, oversaw Tennessee's immunization programs for more than a decade, and later became a member of the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group—a panel of international experts that in 2019 released a report titled "Accelerating the Development of a Universal Influenza Vaccine." The 117-page document provided a road map toward a long-sought goal: creating a flu shot that doesn't need to be reformulated each year to target changing viral strains.

"One lesson we learned was that it's crucial to deploy financial resources in a systematic way to support coordination among laboratories that would typically be competitors," Moore says. And that, she adds, is happening with COVID-19, despite nationalist frictions: scientists from Sanofi joining forces with those at rival GSK; researchers at other companies allying with teams at government laboratories; university labs worldwide sharing data across borders. "I have been greatly encouraged to see the amount of global collaboration involved in this enterprise. Partners are working together who would normally never be partners."

For Moore, whose 77-year-old mother survived a bout with the disease, the current pandemic has hit close to home. "It's essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere," she says. "Morally and ethically, we have a tremendous obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to an affordable vaccine, irrespective of where they live."

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online. For this reprinting of the article, we have updated the latest statistics on COVID-19 and related global news.]

Kenneth Miller
Kenneth Miller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor at Discover, and has reported from four continents for publications including Time, Life, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Aeon. His honors include The ASJA Award for Best Science Writing and the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Writing. Visit his website at www.kennethmiller.net.