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With Expensive U.S. COVID-19 Vaccines, Many Countries Look Elsewhere


To end the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines will have to be distributed around the world. For most countries, the vaccines available in the U.S. right now are simply too expensive and too difficult to transport. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, that is making vaccines made in Russia and China look attractive.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: There's a good reason China could play a key role in ending the global coronavirus pandemic.

DEBORAH SELIGSOHN: China has an enormous vaccine production capacity.

PALCA: Deborah Seligsohn is a China watcher at Villanova University. That enormous capacity is at least in part because China is an enormous country. And since public health measures have largely kept the virus in check in China, that means some of that capacity can be used to send vaccines around the world.

SELIGSOHN: There are going to be huge advantages to these Chinese vaccines once they are, you know, fully tested and if they turn out to be effective.

PALCA: For one thing, they don't require special refrigeration, and for another, they'll be cheap. But there's still that question of if they turn out to be effective.

ABIGAIL COPLIN: We just haven't seen the full trial results published yet.

PALCA: Abigail Coplin is on the faculty of Vassar College. She keeps her eye on Chinese biotech companies. The technology behind the two leading Chinese vaccines is decades old. It's an approach that was used successfully in the 1950s to make a polio vaccine. It involves growing the virus in a lab, then inactivating it with a chemical like formaldehyde and using that in a vaccine.

COPLIN: Their inactivated viral vaccine is based on research that they had conducted to develop a vaccine for SARS, and so that actually gave them a head start.

PALCA: SARS was a deadly outbreak in the early 2000s in China caused by a close relative of the COVID-19 coronavirus. But the virus causing SARS disappeared, so that vaccine got shelved. Coplin sees nothing nefarious about the delays in learning the results of trials of the Chinese vaccines. Since there's very little virus circulating in China to test their vaccine, the Chinese have had to turn to countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey.

COPLIN: And so when you're running that many trials internationally, it does take a lot of time to actually analyze that trial data.

PALCA: What's more, the results that have come out on how well the vaccine works have varied widely from 50 to close to 90%. Without definitive results showing a vaccine works, why have apparently more than a dozen countries around the world signed deals to get one of these vaccines?

J STEPHEN MORRISON: It's a measure of how desperate countries feel and how much uncertainty they face. J.

PALCA: J. Stephen Morrison is director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

MORRISON: Most countries are not throwing themselves hook, line and sinker into partnerships with the Chinese.

PALCA: That's because there are other low-cost alternatives. A vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca is also racking up lots of international customers, and it has been given some form of regulatory go-ahead in several countries, including India. That country is also likely to have a vaccine candidate that will be inexpensive and widely available. But Judyth Twigg says there's already another major entrant into the international vaccine arena.

JUDYTH TWIGG: Back on August 11, the Russian government, with great fanfare, announced the first-in-the-world registration of a vaccine against COVID.

PALCA: Twigg is at Virginia Commonwealth University, and she follows Russian health policy closely. The Russian vaccine is what's known as a viral vector vaccine, a somewhat newer technology than the two leading Chinese vaccines. The Russians chose Sputnik V as the name for their vaccine. Twigg says they did that for a reason.

TWIGG: They're very deliberately invoking imagery of Russia reemerging as a great power status. We're back. We're at the scientific and technological top of the world.

PALCA: And we're ready to start sharing our technology with everyone.

TWIGG: The problem there was that they had not only barely started Phase 3 clinical trials, they had barely started ramping up production.

PALCA: That was back in August. Twigg says production has ramped up. And Russia now claims its vaccine is more than 90% effective, although data for that claim haven't been published yet for other scientists to scrutinize. Several countries are ready to try the vaccine, including Argentina, Mexico and India. One thing is clear - the world is going to need a number of vaccines to work if the global pandemic is really going to be brought under control.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.