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A nurse holds a vial of Pfizer vaccine

A nurse holds up a vial of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on August 30, 2021 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

To End 'Variant Whack-a-Mole,' Study Says World Needs 22 Billion More mRNA Vaccine Doses

"It's crucial that we scale up global access to the most effective vaccines we have access to."

Jake Johnson

With the ultra-contagious Omicron strain pushing global Covid-19 cases to record highs, a new study published Wednesday estimates that the world needs 22 billion additional mRNA vaccine doses to overcome the surging variant and prevent future mutations from emerging.

Compiled by public health experts at PrEP4All and Partners in Health in collaboration with scientists from Harvard Medical School and other prominent institutions, the study warns that current vaccine production capacity is nowhere near where it must be to ensure adequate inoculation rates in every country.

"Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected."

Making matters worse, the authors note, is the dramatically unequal distribution of current mRNA vaccines, which are produced by profit-seeking companies—Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—that have refused to share their recipes with the world and sold most of their supply to rich countries.

Inequities in vaccine access are likely to intensify as booster campaigns expand in rich countries while billions of people in poor nations remain without access to a single dose. According to a Financial Times database, rich countries have administered more coronavirus booster shots than low-income countries have provided in total doses.

"The scientific evidence is clear: Only by universally deploying the vaccines currently most effective against infection—which for now appear to be mRNA vaccines—will we be able to blunt the virus' evolution and begin to bring the pandemic under control globally," the new report states. "This has implications for the need to expand production of mRNA vaccines."

The researchers estimate that 10.5 billion mRNA vaccine doses are needed to provide booster shots to the already-vaccinated. Another 11.5 billion doses, the experts say, will be necessary to inoculate those who have yet to receive either their first or second shot.

The study authors go on to note that even if Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were to meet their 2022 production target of seven billion combined doses, the world would still face a shortfall of 15 billion doses.

"Absent [a] dramatic scale-up of mRNA vaccine production," the study warns, "the global vaccine inequity the world has experienced since late 2020 will persist through 2022, with people in wealthy countries triply or even quadruply vaccinated with the world's most efficacious vaccines."

Just over 9.3 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered globally to date, according to Our World in Data, and only 8.8% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

With sufficient urgency and ambition on the part of the Biden administration, the required increase in mRNA production capacity is "imminently achievable," the new report argues.

"Based on real-world experience at facilities in both the U.S. and Switzerland, we estimate the construction of manufacturing capacity needed to produce this quantity of vaccine doses will cost less than $12 billion in capital expenses and can be accomplished in under four-six months," write the authors, who also recommend the transfer of technology to facilities in developing countries that are prepared to make mRNA vaccines.

Report co-author Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, told the Washington Post on Wednesday that "if we don't want to keep playing variant whack-a-mole, it's crucial that we scale up global access to the most effective vaccines we have access to."

The new study was released a day after the World Health Organization (WHO) said that a new coronavirus variant—currently known as variant IHU or B.1.640.2—has been on its radar since French scientists first discovered it in November, around the same time researchers in southern Africa detected the fast-spreading Omicron strain.

WHO has formally classified five coronavirus strains as "variants of concern" and two others—Lambda and Mu—as "variants of interest."

During a media briefing on Thursday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the international community has "created the perfect conditions for the emergence of virus variants" by failing to ensure adequate vaccine access everywhere, not just in powerful rich countries.

"At the current pace of vaccine rollout, 109 countries would miss out on fully vaccinating 70% of their populations by the start of July 2022," Tedros said. "The essence of the disparity is that some countries are moving toward vaccinating citizens a fourth time, while others haven't even had enough regular supply to vaccinate their health workers and those at most risk."

"Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected," he added. "We can and must turn it around."

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