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Experts Urge Planning Now For When COVID-19 Vaccine Is Available


When will a COVID-19 vaccine be ready? Some vaccine developers are already testing on humans. But it's probably going to be many months. Still, experts say we need to plan now for the day a vaccine is available. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been talking to them. Hey, Joe.


KING: So experts say we need to plan now. What sort of planning needs to be happening right now?

PALCA: Well, there's a lot to consider. Maybe we can start with manufacturing. OK. So let's say a vaccine sails through testing. Great. OK. We need a billion doses of it. Well, you can't wait until the end of the testing and say, oh, yeah. No, we should've thought of that. They're thinking about it now. And the interesting thing is they are building capacity. But companies know and people who are investing in them know, hey, we may never - these - our candidate may never make it. So we're building this capacity. And it may never be used. So it's kind of an interesting conundrum.

KING: Yeah, it really is. Once we have a vaccine, what will early distribution look like? Who gets it?

PALCA: Well, I talked with Bruce Gellin about that. He's the head of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute.

BRUCE GELLIN: When the vaccine is first available, the supplies will be limited. The demand will be a lot more. And then, how do you manage that?

PALCA: Gellin used to be in government. And he says, when there was a threat of a major flu pandemic, they discussed how to prioritize who goes first.

GELLIN: Clearly, among the top were health care workers and people who provide community services, the things that keep society going. There's the security sector, whether that's, you know, national security or the military.

PALCA: And then there's people who are part of society's critical infrastructure. And as we've been learning, they may not be the people who necessarily spring to mind as critical. But I'm talking about people like grocery store employees and delivery truck drivers and people who stock shelves. And then you've got to think about in health terms. So do you give it to people who are most vulnerable? Do you give it to the elderly? There's just a whole raft of interesting issues that have to be grappled with.

KING: OK. So let's say we get to a day where we've got the vaccine. We've gotten to the point where we can mass-produce it. And then it has to get to people all across the world. How is that going to work?

PALCA: Yeah. Well, you can imagine it's a logistical challenge of...

KING: Yeah.

PALCA: ...Enormous dimensions. But it's also a financial challenge. I mean, this is not going to come for free. And the question is, OK, so developed countries like the United States, maybe we can spend billions of dollars. But what about low-resource countries? Well, we have to figure that out. And, you know, part of it is equity and doing the right thing. And part of it is just in light in self-interest, because this virus doesn't know anything about global borders. And when air travel opens back up again, you can bring a virus from anywhere in the world - anywhere else in the world pretty quick. And so it's important to take this as a global problem.

KING: So experts are talking to you about this. They're talking to each other about this. Are these kinds of discussions happening with governments, with our government?

PALCA: Well, absolutely. Absolutely. There are - NGOs are involved. International financial organizations are involved. Governments are involved. We just had a monkey wrench thrown into the works here a bit. It's a little hard to say what the impact will be. But a federal scientist named Richard Bright, who has focused on vaccine development, says he was removed from his post - a key post - in the vaccine development.

And he said in a statement that his lawyer has specifically cited pushback. He was pushing back against unproven potential treatments that President Trump had repeatedly advocated for during White House briefings. Now, you would think that in a global pandemic situation the World Health Organization might be the coordinating agency for taking care of this. But this administration has shown a disdain or a lack of faith in WHO.

KING: A lot of hurdles. NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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