Who will get the coronavirus vaccine first?

Government and private companies around the world have mobilized in an effort to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus at a record pace. The Trump administration earlier this month announced a program called Operation Warp Speed in hopes of having a viable vaccine ready by the end of the year.

Creating a vaccine in a year or 18 months would be an unprecedented achievement. But some experts say the steps afterward are where the hard work really starts. Getting billions of vaccine doses to people in the far corners of the globe represents one of the biggest logistical challenges in the history of medicine. 

Recent history has shown that even when an effective treatment for a dangerous disease exists, production and distribution issues can hamper the effort to help. In 2009, a limited number of an H1N1 swine flu vaccine led to “absolute desperation” for supplies, a state official said. The push to distribute a vaccine for Ebola in Africa was held back by confusion and lack of trust among the local population. 

Neither of these efforts was remotely at the scale needed to successfully implement a vaccine for the coronavirus. Scientists estimate about 70 percent of the population would have to be immune for “herd immunity” to be effective. In the U.S. alone, that means more than 200 million doses would be needed, and perhaps more if the vaccine requires “booster” shots.

Why there’s debate

Creating and distributing millions or billions of vaccine doses depends on a steady supply of a long list of materials — glass vials, rubber stoppers, syringes and refrigerators, to name a few. A shortage of any one of them could derail the whole process.

Vaccine distribution will be a massive undertaking for every government, but some of the president’s critics say the Trump administration is uniquely unequipped to handle it. Shortages of tests, certain drugs and protective equipment, which have plagued the U.S. response to the virus, may be signs of future scarcities when a vaccine is ready, they argue. A former high-ranking government health official has alleged that the Trump administration lacks a “fair and equitable plan” to produce and distribute the vaccine. 

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