· 8 min read
A new year is often seen as a time of reflection, and this past year of 2020 brings much more to reflect on than most. What we have seen over the last 12 months has been astounding—what started in December 2019 as an infectious outbreak contained to a few square miles in a single city has now claimed upwards of 1.5 million lives across the globe. We have witnessed the world go completely virtual, watched health systems be pushed to the brink and saw global economies boom and collapse at record highs and lows within a matter of months.
And now that vaccines are being put into practice through Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) and broader regulatory approvals, it’s time to think about actionable ways we can take what we saw in the past 12 months and ensure these learnings are applied on a global scale.
We all saw how quickly COVID-19 spread in the early months of 2020 – an infectious disease unlike any we had seen in our lifetimes, and more like something out of far-fetched science fiction films. The world we live in today is much different from the world we lived in during the SARS outbreak of 2003, which was contained to just a handful of cities. Today’s world is much more connected, which enabled this virus to spread at exponential speed.
We are now faced with a virus that has touched, and in some cases ravaged, every single corner of the world. It is not enough to urge continued globalization to end the pandemic – it is something that must happen to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most concerning things we’ve learned is the fragility of our local, national and global health systems. With hospitalizations at record highs for months and months at a time, we need to be more prepared on a global scale to handle mass illnesses. Countries and global bodies must see this as a necessary investment in their infrastructures moving forward.
Compounding this challenge further is the unprecedented levels of burnout among health care workers. This, combined with the mental health toll that the pandemic has taken on the general population in terms of stress about the future, economy and loneliness from isolation, shows that this issue requires concerted effort and attention from global organizations to ultimately improve individual nations.
While we continue to face challenges, we have not been deterred. Encouragingly, we learned how to massively condense processes that previously took multiple years, into the span of mere months. As of September 2020, the Food and Drug Administration had approved 235 diagnostic tests under EUAs, and multiple vaccines were going through approval and clinical trials. We have several vaccines being distributed across the globe to vaccinate key vulnerable populations, as well as promising treatments in various stages of approval. What has simultaneously been history’s greatest global health failure was also science and medical research’s greatest achievement in compressing several years of development work into months, all while preserving the integrity of research and production, ensuring safe, effective vaccines for public consumption.
Whether vaccines, diagnostics or therapeutics, COVID-19 has shown we can effectively and rapidly accelerate scientific innovation on a global scale. The speed at which we were able to learn and gather enough knowledge about the virus to recommend effective preventative measures like social distancing and mask wearing was also unprecedented. Now, with the vaccination phase finally upon us, it’s time to step up and work together as nations on a coordinated global effort to manufacture, distribute and increase uptake of these vaccines, improved diagnostic tests and therapies. A global effort versus individualized national approaches is the only way to make an impact of any scale.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, vaccines have been hailed as the light at the end of the tunnel. Conversations with friends and family throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2020 often ended with something along the lines of “at least there’s a vaccine coming soon and the world can go back to normal.”
Unfortunately, the data shows that this may simply not be the case. Recent polls in the U.S. and UK tell us that 30-35% of those surveyed are unlikely to get vaccinated. We now have vaccines in the early stages of approval and distribution that have demonstrated 90+% efficacy, meaning that in order to achieve the elusive goal of herd immunity, we must inoculate at least 75% of the world’s 7.7 billion people with an effective vaccine. These numbers should raise red flags for global leaders everywhere. They show a need for a cohesive and swift global approach to tackling vaccine hesitancy, distribution and manufacturing.
In addition to increasing vaccine uptake, speed is also of the essence. If global vaccination does not occur quickly enough within the span of several months, there is more opportunity for the virus to mutate and for the vaccine to become less efficacious. In addition, young people are getting infected at much higher rates than older adults and not vaccinating billions of asymptomatic young people could allow an entirely new mutated virus to spread. Global regulatory bodies must come together to ensure swift vaccine distribution not just for older populations but for all, to put a swift halt to the spread of the virus.
Supply chain constraints must also be addressed – billions of doses need to be produced in record time and shipped across all corners of the globe at record speed.
Even after a speedy distribution, less developed countries may not have access to specialized cold chain systems required to store and distribute the current range of vaccines. We must continue to work collaboratively to ensure all countries can store and distribute vaccines, and the means and skillset to administer them.
As we start to witness approvals for multiple vaccines it’s crucial that global regulatory bodies such as the World Health Organization acknowledge the need for multiple vaccines and properly plan how to distribute them for maximum efficiency – for example Oxford’s vaccine will be easier to manufacture and store than its mRNA competitors and therefore will be better suited for developing nations. It is crucial to properly and strategically plan distribution strategies on a global scale, especially knowing that time is of the essence.
Another key component will be balancing pandemic-era public health practices (masks, social distancing, diligent handwashing and quarantining at home) with promising vaccine news. The early months of 2021 are critical in stopping the spread of the virus. A coordinated global response is required to solve a global problem. Although vaccines are beginning to be administered, it’s more important than ever to continue pre-vaccine practices to eliminate the spread.