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Health

Can Vaccines Reach the World's Poorest? 4 Reasons It's Been So Hard

By Thin Lei Win and Tom Finn

Nov 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Moderna Inc's experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more stable than expected at temperatures that ordinary refrigerators can provide and can be distributed using existing cold-chain shipping and storage infrastructure.

That opens the door for its early use in hard-to-reach places that might not be appropriate for Pfizer Inc's vaccine, which needs ultra-cold storage.

Why has access to life-saving vaccines been so unequal and could the coronavirus pandemic lead countries to unite around an affordable vaccine?

The Bigger Picture

Even before COVID-19 hit, access to vaccines was deeply unequal with around 20 million children not receiving vaccines that could save them from serious diseases, death, disability, and ill health, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

An estimated 1.4 million children under five died from vaccine-preventable diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, and measles in 2016, according to UNICEF.

The situation could be about to get worse because COVID-19-related lockdowns have disrupted the routine immunization of millions of children against non-coronavirus diseases like diphtheria, measles, and polio.

Approximately 80 million children under the age of 1 in at least 68 countries could be impacted, according to WHO.  

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Why Has Getting Vaccines to Developing Countries Been So Difficult?

The cost of vaccinating a child against diphtheria, whooping cough, hepatitis B, tetanus, pneumonia, polio, and rotavirus was $15.90 in 2018, according to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

While this may not seem much, this is still beyond the reach of many poor households.

This was why Gavi was set up as an alliance, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF, and others, to provide vaccines to the world's poorest countries.

Currently, around a hundred drug development teams worldwide, including institutions, biotechs, and big pharma companies, are racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19.

"The worry we have is that unless we scale up production dramatically right now, and do that at risk, when the vaccines are available, they could be bought up by wealthy countries," Gavi's chief executive officer Seth Berkley said earlier this year.

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Do Infrastructure and Logistics Play a Role?

Many poor countries lack reliable electricity and cold storage, two elements crucial to keep vaccines effective, and sometimes there are not enough healthcare professionals to administer the vaccines.

Large parts of the world's population also still live in places without proper roads, running water, or a telephone connection, making it difficult to contact potential vaccine recipients and deliver to them.

Moderna's vaccine is stable for up to six months at a temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), about home-freezer levels, when shipped and stored.   

By comparison, Pfizer's vaccine can be transported and stored for up to 6 months at minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit). It can be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures for up to five days.

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What About Politics?

The stability of a country also plays an important role in whether people can access vaccines.

For example, two-thirds of unvaccinated children live in fragile countries or those affected by conflict, according to UNICEF.

Between 2010 and 2016, Syria saw the sharpest decline in vaccinated children, with coverage falling by 38 percentage points, following by Ukraine where coverage decreased by 33 percentage points, the agency added.    

(Reporting by Thin Lei Win; editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.)