5 charts that tell the story of vaccines today

  • Over 100 studies are under way to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

  • Vaccination is one of the world’s most successful health interventions, saving as many as 3 million lives every year.

  • But a further 1.5 million deaths a year could be avoided with improved global coverage.

  • Cost, conflict and vaccine hesitancy are among the barriers.

Vaccination is among the most important developments in human health, saving millions of lives a year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of immunization to our modern world, but the path to universal vaccination is neither simple nor cheap. Here are five charts that tell the story of vaccination today.

The race is on to find a COVID-19 vaccine

The different stages of coronavirus vaccines being developed. Image: Nature Reviews

Across the world, more than 100 COVID-19 vaccines are currently being developed, with one European pharmaceutical company predicting it could have one ready to go into production globally as early as September.

In China, where the outbreak was first reported, five vaccines are already being tested on humans, and a government body says at least one could be ready by the end of this year.

But it could still take a long time

The 5 stages of vaccine development. Image: Welcome Trust

The speed with which researchers and pharmaceutical companies have responded to the coronavirus epidemic has been described as "unprecedented" by Dr Jerome Kim, Director-General of the International Vaccine Institute.

“When we are used to five-year time frames, to see something go into human testing on March 17 is really a remarkable thing,” he told CNBC. “Does this guarantee success? Not necessarily. Vaccine development is characterized by a high failure rate – often 93% between animal studies and registration of a product.”

The discovery and research phase is normally two-to-five years, according to the Welcome Trust. In total, a vaccine can take more than 10 years to fully develop and costs up to $500 million, the UK charity says.

And even established vaccines aren't universal

The most widespread vaccines in the world Image: Statista

The WHO says vaccination currently saves 2-3 million lives every year, but another 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if more people were vaccinated. The barriers to universal immunization are formidable, especially in less developed areas.

Humanitarian medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says the high cost of vaccines and problems delivering and storing them prevent people from being immunized. Collapsed public health systems in conflict zones not only prevent vaccination but can stop people being treated when diseases reappear.

Anti-vaccine sentiment is also an obstacle

This is how vaccine safety is viewed around the world. Image: Statista

Last year, the WHO named vaccine hesitancy – a reluctance or refusal to vaccinate – as one of 10 biggest health threats facing the world.

The reasons people choose not to vaccinate are complex, but complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines and lack of confidence are key underlying factors, according to the WHO. Health workers must be supported to provide trusted information on vaccines to help counter this, it says.

France has the lowest levels of trust in vaccines globally, according to a Gallup poll. A third of people in the country are concerned about the safety of immunization.

Ultimately, though, they save lives

How vaccines eradicated common diseases Image: Statista

Vaccination is not only one of the cheapest and most effective ways of preventing disease, says the WHO, it is also critical to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by supporting education and economic development.

So far, only smallpox has been declared officially eradicated by vaccination. But only last year, one of the two last surviving strains of polio was eradicated. More than 140 world leaders have called for a COVID-19 vaccine to be made available free to everyone.

Meanwhile, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, was launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2000. It helps vaccinate almost half the world’s children against infectious diseases.

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