So far, the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has been a uniting force across the country. But what comes next could be trickier according to experts.
"And the whole issue of how do you distribute these vaccines and who does get them. That's a whole different issues with multiple factors to consider," says Stanford microbiology and immunology professor Bali Pulendran, Ph.D.
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Professor Pulendran says the development of roughly half a dozen government-backed vaccine candidates in less than a year is a stunning achievement. Still, questions remain about their effectiveness for specific individuals.
"Not all vaccines may work equally well in immuno-compromised people for instance, or the elderly," he points out.
The Trump administration has tapped drug distribution giant McKesson to handle the mammoth challenge of getting vaccine supplies to centers around the country. Distribution plans give early priority to health care workers, first responders and the elderly, along with other vulnerable populations. But fellow Stanford Immunology and microbiology professor Dr. David Relman, M.D., believes the priorities after that could be less clear.
"And then you have to immediately have to ask, what is essential, and how essential is essential," says Dr. Relman.
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For the first time, consideration will reportedly be given to minority communities heavily affected by the virus. While the administration has promised to make the doses available free of charge, several state governors have already raised alarms about the broader costs of actually vaccinating millions of people.
"Some insurers have said, yes we will provide the vaccine if a whole variety of things are true. And it gets complicated quickly," adds Dr. Relman.
Plans call for the vaccines to be rolled out in phases. But doctors say which vaccine is available when could also be a consideration for many. And professor Pulendran believes some people could decide to wait, or possibly even mix and match.
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"I think taking a vaccine at some point doesn't necessarily preclude one from taking a booster shot with something else later on, maybe a year, to two years," he says.
No matter how the final distribution plays out, health experts say one goal is critical. Getting a high enough percentage of Americans to take some version, to help reach a national tipping point for immunity against COVID-19.
Expanding supply chains could also be critical. Some promising vaccines require special super-cold refrigeration during transportation and storage, potentially making them more difficult to distribute.
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