How will a coronavirus vaccine be handed out to people?

Multiple trials of coronavirus vaccines are taking place around the world. Picture: Karleen Minney

Multiple trials of coronavirus vaccines are taking place around the world. Picture: Karleen Minney

People around the world are anxiously awaiting news of a successful coronavirus vaccine in the hope they can gain back some semblance of life as it was before the pandemic.

While vaccines normally take years to develop, scientists and medical experts around the world are frantically working to create a jab that can turn the tide against the virus.

But the mammoth task of creating a vaccine is only half the task. The next challenge after that would be the monumental logistics of distributing it to billions of people around the world.

How are coronavirus vaccines tracking?

Globally, there are dozens of different clinical trials ongoing that are testing a potential coronavirus vaccine on humans.

Of those, nine of them are in the third stage of testing, meaning they are tested on thousands of people with researchers examining if people get infected as opposed to test subjects who only receive a placebo.

One of the vaccines in late-stage testing was one being developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford.

The federal government has signed a deal with the pharmaceutical company to secure supply of the vaccine for Australia should those tests be successful.

However, testing was briefly halted last week after a trial participant developed an "unexplained illness".

British clinical trials resumed last weekend while trials for the same vaccine are still on hold in other countries.

University of New South Wales epidemiologist and advisor to the World Health Organisation Mary-Louise McLaws said researchers were trying to develop vaccines in record time.

"Developing a vaccine is not easy. For example the HPV vaccine took 15 years to develop and around 40 to 50 per cent of vaccines that get to the third stage of testing fail," Professor McLaws said.

"The federal government looking at several vaccine candidates is very sensible, given the high failure rate."

The government has also locked in a deal with another potential vaccine being tested by CSL and the University of Queensland.

How would a vaccine be distributed?

Even if a vaccine is tested and proven to be successful, the logistics of distributing one to the public in one country would be a large challenge, let alone around the world.

Of the two deals the Australian government has signed with vaccine makers, more than 30 million doses would be secured as part of the Oxford trial while a further 51 million would be handed out should the University of Queensland trial prove fruitful.

It's thought the more than 80 million doses handed out in Australia would be done in stages.

The government had previously indicated that 3.8 million doses of the Oxford vaccine could be distributed as early as January, but that would all be dependent on a vaccine being successful.

Other countries have signed similar deals with other vaccine makers to distribute doses to its population. For instance, the UK government has signed deals with six vaccines in testing, where if they were all successful, would lead to a national stockpile of 340 million doses.

A country's roll out of a vaccine to its population would be largely dependent on what deals had been signed with vaccine makers.

While it's not known how many doses one would need to become immune to coronavirus, it's thought two doses would be required per person.

Professor McLaws said it was heartening that any excess of vaccine doses acquired by the Commonwealth would be passed on to neighbouring countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The WHO would like all countries to be philanthropic and caring for neighbouring communities and countries that may not have the finances or the infrastructure to be able to produce a vaccine by themselves."

Who would get the vaccine first?

While people would be clamouring to be protected from coronavirus, Professor McLaws said it was likely the vaccine would be made available to select groups of people first.

Those people would be likely to be frontline workers, those in healthcare, or people who would be dealing with the threat of COVID-19 on a regular basis.

Professor McLaws said beyond that, it was likely such a vaccine would be distributed to those who would be most at risk at contracting coronavirus, such as the elderly.

However, work was still being carried out on a vaccine's effectiveness in that age group.

"The AstraZeneca trial is being tested on 18 to 55-year-olds, which means it may not be as efficacious as a vaccine for the elderly because they have an older immune system which needs assistance for a boosted response," she said.

"For that trial the successful outcome is a 50 per cent response rate, so the 50 per cent who develop an antibody to coronavirus may go someway to protecting those that wouldn't develop an antibody response."

Professor McLaws said further testing would be needed to be undertaken to determine how effective the vaccine would be on different subsets of the population.

"There'll be many different versions of the vaccine, some may be produced in such a way that it's more effective for the elderly while others may be produced and designed in such a way that we have better enduring antibodies," she said.

Will life go back to normal as soon as we get a vaccine?

While a vaccine to coronavirus would go a long way to helping return things to what they were pre-pandemic, it wouldn't be instantaneous.

Professor McLaws said it was likely habits that have been well established during the pandemic to continue for some time after a vaccine is handed out.

"Until globally there has been a high level of vaccination, you would still need to be careful and perform those public health measures like social distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette and wearing a mask," she said.

"We will need to have a large proportion of the population to be vaccinated to cover us and get things back to normal."

Until that point, it's a case of playing a waiting game for a coronavirus vaccine to be properly tested and handed out.

This story What happens after a COVID vaccine is found? first appeared on The Canberra Times.