Real risk of Covid-19 vaccine shortage ‘keeps me up’ at night, says leading expert

A leading vaccine expert has warned that problems with the supply of Covid-19 vaccines is “keeping us up at night”, with some manufacturers reporting they have as little as two weeks left before they run out of essential raw materials. 

Unless something is urgently done there is a real risk of shortages, according to Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), which has part-funded many of the foremost vaccines. 

He said that a combination of the vast demand for similar products involved in vaccine manufacture, combined with the emerging trend of governments blocking exports, could hit the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out – as well as supplies of other vaccines and medical products worldwide.  

“[We are] focusing on trying to prevent a problem from emerging that’s keeping us up – which is that there are a bunch of factors that could potentially complicate the manufacturing, even of the vaccines we have,” Dr Hatchett told The Telegraph

Dr Hatchett is part of a panel of experts, including leading representatives from the vaccine manufacturing and biotechnology industries, meeting virtually at Chatham House think tank on Monday to try to come up with a plan to tackle the issue. 

He said there were potential shortages and bottlenecks around many of the raw materials that are needed across the different vaccine manufacturers, from the plastic bioreactor bags to tubing and medical-grade glass. 

“We are getting pieces of intelligence from various parts of the system,” he said. “We talked to some of the vaccine manufacturers who are really short of certain critical consumables, to the point where they might only have the ability to keep manufacturing for two or four or six weeks, based on what they have been able to secure.” 

A number of the leading vaccine manufacturers, including AstraZeneca, have already seen delays to their production as some plants produced lower than expected dose yields. 

Dr Hatchett said there was now a risk of stockpiling as companies scrambled to keep meeting their orders.

He added that export controls imposed by the European Union will only make things worse, especially when combined with existing supply restrictions and the scramble to amp up manufacturing – both of existing vaccines and potential variant-proof booster shots. 

“You can see how all those lines might cross in the future and significantly reduce the productivity of the system we’ve got,” he said. “And what we want to do is maximise the productivity of the system because we need as much vaccine as we can possibly get.” 

The potential problems are even more of a concern for poorer countries, many of which are already at the back of the queue for Covid-19 vaccines despite the efforts of Covax, an initiative co-led by Cepi, which started distributing doses earlier this month. 

Last week, World Health Organisation head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus issued similar warnings that urgent action is needed to remove the barriers in order to boost the speed and volume of the production of Covid-19 vaccines. 

Dr Tedros said factors such as “export bans to shortage of raw materials, including glass, plastic, and stoppers” were holding up the production of lifesaving vaccines. 

He added that companies producing vaccines should team up with others that have excess capacity, for example in fill and finish, or consider sharing their technologies with other companies – effectively waiving their intellectual property rights – to boost supply. 

Unless something is done soon, the unprecedented demand for Covid-19 jabs could hit the production of other critical vaccines and medical products too, Dr Hatchett added. 

“Potentially, because these same raw materials are used in other products, you could end up having shortages in other vaccine products, or even other medical products, like biological therapeutics,” he said.  “The risk, given the intense global demand for Covid vaccines, is real.” 

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