The cost of fighting a virus

Money and stethoscope to illustrate the cost of health care

By Dr  Michelina Andreucci

THE announcement by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on January 23 2021 that the Government of Zimbabwe is sparing no efforts in securing a COVID-19 vaccine for the citizenry of Zimbabwe is welcome news indeed and a ray of hope for the beleaguered people; most of whom have borne the full brunt of the uncertainty associated with the ongoing and seemingly relentless pandemic.

Following the initial detection of a novel coronavirus pneumonia in December 2019, the genetic sequence of COVID-19 was published on January 11 2020, prompting an urgent international response to prepare for the outbreak and accelerate the development of a preventative vaccine.

As the number of COVID-19-related deaths keeps rising worldwide, humanity waits with bated breath for an effective vaccine.  

But what does it take and how much does it cost to produce such a vaccine that will counter/fight a virus, especially a virus of the magnitude of COVID-19 which has rapidly engulfed the world?

In point of fact, a vaccine for any infectious disease has never before been produced in fewer than several years, and no previous vaccine exists for preventing a coronavirus infection; although considerable knowledge about the structure and function of coronaviruses had been made during attempts to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus diseases Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), but all the vaccine candidates failed in the early stage of clinical trials.  

However, the knowledge previously gained assisted scientists in the early stages of 2020 to fast-track the rapid development of varied technology platforms for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Since the initial outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, multiple attempts have been made to develop a vaccine to fight the scourge.  

Nonetheless, the WHO did not expect a vaccine to become available in under 18 months, that is before June 2021. 

The rapidly growing infection rate of COVID-19 worldwide, during early 2020, swiftly stimulated international alliances and government efforts to urgently organise the resources required to accelerate the development of multiple vaccines on shortened timelines and prepare for their distribution globally.

WHO organised a ‘telethon’ to raise US$8 billion from 40 countries to support the rapid development of vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections.  

By early May 2020, the UK, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands had already donated US$915 million.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) organised a US$2 billion worldwide fund for rapid investment and development of vaccine candidates.  

Vaccine efforts were prioritised for speed of rigorous clinical evaluation for safety and efficacy, financing and planning to manufacture billions of doses, as well as the eventual worldwide deployment of a vaccine and its equitable access among developed and undeveloped countries.

By May 2020, 159 vaccine candidates against COVID-19 were in development; with five having been initiated in Phase I–II safety and efficacy studies in human subjects, and seven in Phase I trials.  

By April, CEPI estimated that as many as six of 115 vaccine candidates be chosen by international coalitions for further development through Phase II – III trials; and three vaccines be streamlined through regulatory and quality assurance for eventual licensing; at a total minimum cost of US$2 billion.

WHO, CEPI and the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation have invested finances and organisational resources for the prospect that several vaccines would be needed to prevent ongoing COVID-19 infections.

Other organisations that have formed international alliances to expedite the development of a vaccine and prepare for its distribution include:

λ WHO – by facilitating collaboration, accelerated research, and international communications on a scale unprecedented in history, with a goal to raise US$8 billion and implement an Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator for global vaccine development; 

λ The CEPI – through working with global health authorities and vaccine developers to raise US$8 billion in a global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations for the accelerated research and clinical testing of eight vaccine candidates;

λ The Gates Foundation, a private charitable organisation dedicated to vaccine research and distribution, has donated US$250 million for research and public educational support, mainly in support of CEPI; 

λ The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) – through financing and organising clinical groups in under-developed countries with COVID-19 vaccination preparedness; 

λ The Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GLoPID-R) – by working with WHO and member-states to identify specific funding of research priorities needed for a COVID-19 vaccine, co-ordinating among the international funding and research organisations to maintain updated information on vaccine progress and avoid duplicate funding; 

λ The International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium – by organising and disseminating clinical information on COVID-19 research to inform public health policy on eventual vaccine distribution. 

WHO estimated that a total cost of US$8 billion is required to develop a suite of three or more vaccines having different technologies and distribution to prevent COVID-19 infections globally.  

The vaccines will require custom formulation, special packaging, transportation and correct storage in every one of some 200 countries with infected citizens worldwide.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant. She is a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail:


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