The world has witnessed the unprecedented development of a number of vaccines in record time to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The development has been the result of widespread cooperation in sharing information and the funding in part by governments and early orders for hundreds of millions of doses if vaccines proved efficacious and safe. In roughly one year since the virus was declared a pandemic by the WHO, individual vaccines have been produced and authorized by one or more governments (some by as many as 70 along with WHO approval).
According to the Financial Times COVID-19 vaccine tracker, as of March 25, nearly 490 million vaccine shots have been administered around the world (based on data from 166 locations). See Financial Times, Covid-19 vaccine tracker: the global race to vaccinate, 25 March 2021, https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker/?areas=gbr&areas=isr&areas=usa&areas=eue&cumulative=1&populationAdjusted=1. The companies with approved vaccines have been ramping up production at their own and at licensed facilities in other countries. Because companies are racing to put in place 3-4 times the global capacity for all vaccines (3.5 billion doses) to produce COVID-19 vaccines (10-14 billion doses by the end of 2021) and because there are complex supply chains and production processes for the new vaccines, there have been various delays which have occurred both at manufacturers and at suppliers. This has been true in the U.S., in the EU, in India and other producing countries. While countries and producers are working on solutions, shortages of certain materials exist and can reduce production of finished vaccines globally.
While the WHO, GAVI, CEPI and UNICEF have set up COVAX to get vaccines to a total of 192 countries, including 92 low- and middle-income countries where materials will be supplied at discounted prices or for free and have a target of two billion doses to participating countries in 2021, there is an early reliance on AstraZeneca’s vaccine whether produced by AstraZeneca or through license by the Serum Institute (SII) in India, the world’s largest vaccine producer.
Unfortunately, many countries are going through a new wave of COVID-19 infections which puts pressure on governments to secure sufficient supplies to address domestic demand. See, e.g., European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of week 11, updated 25 March 2021, https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases (shows total new reported infections going up globally for the fourth week after a sharp decline after New Year’s). Countries showing large numbers of cases over the last two weeks (whether increases or decreases) include Ethiopia (21,227), Kenya (12,083), Libya (12,852), South Africa (17,646), Argentina (91,023), Brazil (995,861), Canada (48,021), Chile (77,561), Colombia (63,417), Ecuador (18,223), Mexico (66,683), Paraguay (26,252), Peru (98,323), United States (830,346), Uruguay (19,512), Bangladesh (19,938), India (416,683), Indonesia (80,522), Iran (119,383), Iraq (67,344), Jordan (109,594), Lebanon (43,964), Pakistan (38,371), Philippines 969,382), United Arab Emirates (29,506), Austria (39,842), Belgium (50,670), Bulgaria (43,115), Czechia (142,042), Estonia (20211), France (378,370), Germany (162,032), Greece (32,005), Hungary (111,929), Italy (308,890), Moldova (19,82), Netherlands (83,797), Poland (272,046), Romania (70,295), Russian Federation (133,24), Serbia (65,689), Spain (67,833), Sweden (61,666), Turkey (232,705), Ukraine (147,456), United Kingdom (78,063). While many countries do not produce COVID-19 vaccines, the list of countries includes many in the EU as well as Brazil, the United States and India. Brazil’s production of COVID-19 vaccines is not expected to start until May. Below I review developments on vaccination roll-outs in the United States, the European Union and India.
Vaccination roll-out in the U.S., EU and India — three important COVID-19 vaccination production areas
Under the Biden Administration, the United States has drastically improved its performance on COVID-19 vaccinations with 129.3 million vaccinations given by March 24 and with the President announcing his Administration’s revised goal of 200 million shots in arms in his first 100 days in office (April 29). See Financial Times, Biden doubles vaccine goal to 200m in first 100 days, 25 March 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/a1accbdf-0010-426c-9442-feb73b5c8a1d. While the U.S. focus is on getting the U.S. population vaccinated as the first priority, the U.S. has agreed to “loan” 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to Canada and 2.5 million doses to Mexico. The U.S., following a leader’s remote meeting of the Quad (U.S., Japan, India, Australia), agreed to work with the other Quad partners to produce one billion doses in India of a vaccine by the end of 2022 from a U.S. company that would be paid for by Japan and the U.S. and would receive distribution support from Australia for countries in the Indo-Pacific region. See March 12, 2021, COVID-19 vaccines – U.S., Japan, India and Australia agree to one billion doses for Indo-Pacific countries, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/12/covid-19-vaccines-u-s-japan-india-and-australia-agree-to-one-billion-doses-for-indo-pacific-countries/.
The European Union, a major producing location for COVID-19 vaccines and various inputs and a major exporter, has had rollout problems flowing from production problems at AstraZeneca’s EU facilities, concerns by many EU members on whether the vaccine from AstraZeneca was safe (small number of blot clot problems in those vaccinated) and other issues. See New York Times, Where Europe Went Wrong in Its Vaccine Rollout, and Why, March 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/world/europe/europe-vaccine-rollout-astrazeneca.html; Financial Times, Nordic nations hold off on AstraZeneca jab as scientists probe safety, 21 March 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/0ef3a623-f3a2-4e76-afbd-94a915b24ad5. With vaccination rates in the EU far behind the U.K. and the U.S. and a number of other countries, this has led to significant internal pressures to ensure that manufacturers were honoring contracts with the EU and has led to two temporary regulations (and an extension) giving EU members authority to stop exports outside of the EU (and excluding the shipments to COVAX low-and middle-income countries). See March 5, 2021, COVID-19 vaccines — France supports Italy’s blockage of a shipment to Australia; while Australia has asked the EU to permit the shipment, Australia will have its own production of AstraZeneca product by the end of March, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/05/covid-19-vaccines-france-supports-italys-blockage-of-a-shipment-to-australia-while-australia-has-asked-the-eu-to-permit-the-shipment-australia-will-have-its-own-production-of-astrazeneca-produc/; European Commission, Commission strengthens transparency and authorisation mechanism for exports of COVID-19 vaccines, 24 March 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_1352; European Commission, 24.3.2021 C(2021) 2081 final COMMISSION IMPLEMENTING REGULATION (EU) …/… of 24.3.2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_1352; European Commission, Commission extends transparency and authorisation mechanism for exports of COVID-19 vaccines, 11 March 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_1121. Australia had a shipment stopped by Italy and the EC has been raising concerns in the United Kingdom.
In recent days, Indian producer Serum Institute has notified a number of customers that their orders would be delayed several months. GAVI COVAX has been notified as well, with 40 million doses in April and 50 million in May apparently unlikely to ship. Press articles attribute the delays to the needs within India, though SII has suggested delays are also due to availability issues on certain inputs. The Indian government claims it is simply adjusting schedules in light of internal needs and is not imposing an export ban per se. See, e.g., BBC News, India coronavirus: Why have vaccine exports been suspended?, 25 March 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55571793; Wall Street Journal, India Suspends Covid-19 Vaccine Exports to Focus on Domestic Immunization, March 25, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/india-suspends-covid-19-vaccine-exports-to-focus-on-domestic-immunization-11616690859#:~:text=An%20Indian%20government%20official%20said,of%20the%20government’s%20vaccine%20program.&text=On%20Tuesday%2C%20the%20government%20said,to%20those%20older%20than%2045; Times of India, India has not banned Covid-19 vaccine exports, 25 March 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-has-not-banned-covid-19-vaccine-exports-sources/articleshow/81693010.cms.
Much of the anticipated ramp up of COVID-19 vaccine production will be happening over the coming months, such that there should be dramatically greater vaccine availability in the coming months. That doesn’t help governments or populations waiting for vaccines. or that are going through a significant ramp up in infections. The pharmaceutical industry and major groups got together earlier this month to explore where the bottlenecks are in ramping up production. See March 12, 2021, The 8-9 March “Global C19 Vaccine Supply Chain and Manufacturing Summit”, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/12/the-8-9-march-global-c19-vaccine-supply-chain-and-manufacturing-summit-efforts-to-ramp-up-production/ It is unclear the extent to which governments and industry are working together to solve bottlenecks in supply, to facilitate production ramp up, share experiences in reusing safely some critical materials that are in short supply, etc. During these critical months, greater cooperation in solving problems and facilitating expansion of production is needed and hopefully is occurring. Export restrictions have and will occur under various guises, reflecting internal political pressures. In the coming months and certainly by the third quarter of 2021, there should be large volumes of vaccine doses above and beyond what has been contracted by COVAX that will be available for use around the world. Time is obviously of the essence. Cooperation to solve supply chain bottlenecks and speed ramp-ups is the best short term option for speeding getting past the pandemic globally.