The World Health Organization said if there is an effective vaccine against COVID-19 next year the distribution plan prioritizes vaccinating those most at risk to the virus, forcing the average person to possibly wait for their inoculation until 2022.
"People tend the think 'Ah! On the first of January or the first of April, I'm going to get the vaccine, and then things will be back to normal,'" WHO's chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said. "It's not going to work like that."
Swaminathan made the remark Wednesday during an online question and answer discussion hosted by the U.N. health body, explaining that if there is a vaccine by next year there will not initially be enough produced for everyone, so countries will need a plan for distributing the drug.
She said WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts has produced guidelines to help countries prioritize the allocation of a COVID-19 vaccine, but cautioned that even then hard decisions will need to be made.
"Most people agree that it's starting with healthcare workers and frontline workers, but even there you need to define which of them are at the highest risk and then the elderly and so on," she said. "So it is important for countries to now start preparing."
The WHO has been leading an initiative to manufacture and provide equitable worldwide access to a vaccine and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, has said the global rollout of the drug will first be to those at highest risk with disbursement continuing on to other demographics as supplies increase.
More than 170 countries have joined the WHO-led initiative, called COVAX.
The plan, Tedros said, is to deliver at least 2 billion doses of a vaccine by the end of next year -- dependent on the development of an effective and safe inoculation.
Swaminathan said that there will hopefully be a vaccine next year but that the average person will probably have to wait until 2022.
"I think an average person, a healthy young person, might have to wait until 2022 to get a vaccine," she said. "But, by that time, hopefully, we can stem the acute impacts, reduce mortality, protect those who are at highest risk, start solving the acute problems and then we start by going to protect the larger percentage of the population."
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, added that there may be more than one vaccine, which may increase their ability to produce the drug.
She said that discussion around production is already occurring as vaccines are being developed, which is uncommon.
"We're doing this at the same time because we know we need so many doses so quickly to focus on the high-risk workers," she said. "What we're aiming towards with this allocation framework is that we have enough vaccine to vaccinate those most vulnerable, most at risk in every country as opposed to having vaccine for everyone in a couple of countries."
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