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The COVID vaccine arms race and the struggles of the supply chain

August 20, 2020, 8:29 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers. And welcome to another edition of The Capsule.

When the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) speaks to a health catastrophe afflicting the entire world, it’s probably prudent to listen. Whether or not we’ll actually do so is another question.

But WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus isn’t mincing words about the arms race to secure coronavirus vaccine doses—and what it could mean for global health.

“We need to prevent vaccine nationalism,” he said bluntly in press remarks last week.

Readers know that supply chain constraints have sucked up resources around the world as private firms and national governments struggle to provide everything from protective gear to basic supplies such as plastic pipette tips and plate to conduct coronavirus tests.

The battle to secure as many vaccine doses as possible, once approved, could prove an even messier fight given that a limited number of companies are trying to address the problems of the entire world.

“Supply nationalism exacerbated the pandemic and contributed to the total failure of the global supply chain,” said Tedros. “This is not charity. We have learned the hard way that the fastest way to end this pandemic and to reopen economies is to start by protecting the highest-risk populations everywhere, rather than the entire populations of just some countries.”

As I wrote earlier this week, we’ll see if the world listens.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you again next week.

Sy Mukherjee


Color, Mass General Hospital: Genetic information is more important than we realized in cancer care. Digital health firm Color, the Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Broad Institute of Harvard & MIT have published a new study suggesting that collecting genetic information may be even more important for treating cancers than we previously thought. Color has an obvious business stake here as a genetics company. But here's what the study found: A difference between "monogenic" risk versus "polygenic" risk. In simpler terms, there are a whole lot of subtle genetic mutations beyond the ones we commonly know of which can help diagnose a cancer. “We’ve found that the traditional approach of only looking for monogenic risk variants misses an important part of the picture. A person’s polygenic risk also plays a crucial role in predicting the development of disease. I suspect that evaluating both will soon become standard in clinical practice," said Amit V. Khera, associate director of the Broad Institute’s Program in Medical and Population Genetics, in a statement about the study.


AstraZeneca's lead in the COVID vaccine race. My colleague Jeremy Kahn has an in-depth look into British pharma giant AstraZeneca's efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine—and the manufacturing challenges that it will face going forward as it attempts to produce 2 billion doses of its experimental vaccine, which is being created in collaboration with Oxford. And then there's the business side, as Jeremy writes, which is, well, a bit morbid in the face of such an outbreak. "On average, developing a new vaccine takes more than a decade. In this case, it is being done in about six months," he says. "Even if it works, AstraZeneca, which brought in $24.4 billion in revenue last year, will make no money at first. It has agreed to provide most of those initial 2 billion doses, and perhaps billions more, at cost. The vaccine will boost AstraZeneca’s bottom line only if COVID-19 proves to be an endemic, seasonal menace, like the flu, for which people require regular vaccinations." (Fortune)


The postal service crunch is hitting prescription deliveries. There are already worries abound that a lack of resources for the U.S. Postal Service could disrupt the upcoming presidential election. But the USPS serves such an outsize role in America that it may be easy to forget the other services it provides—including for prescription drug delivery. NBC reports on the stories of multiple patients who have had to rely on mail service to get their drugs during the pandemic but faced delays due to the crunch on USPS funding. These patients says they've never experienced such delays before for important medications.(NBC News)


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