Widespread COVID-19 vaccinations not expected until mid-2021, says WHO

Potential candidates must prove robust efficacy and safety first


The World Health Organization’s chief scientist said on Friday that widespread vaccinations against COVID-19 are not expected until at least mid-2021.

Soumya Swaminathan told a press briefing that large-scale distribution of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine will most likely not occur before the middle of next year, based on current clinical testing timelines.

“So realistically speaking, probably the second half, the middle of 2021 - maybe the second quarter, the third quarter of 2021 - is when we can start seeing doses actually flowing into countries so that they can start to immunise their populations,” said Swaminathan.

“We expect results from some of the candidates, which are already in phase 3 trials, to come by the end of the year or the beginning of next year, following which they’ll have to be scaling [up] manufacturing to produce the hundreds of millions of doses that are going to be needed. In fact, the world is going to need billions of doses, and that is going to take time to manufacture,” she added.

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris also highlighted the importance of ensuring robust safety and efficacy of potential COVID-19 vaccines. She said that, so far, no candidate in advanced clinical trials has demonstrated a “clear signal” of efficacy at the level of at least 50% sought by the WHO.

A vaccine is usually determined to be safe and effective in large-scale phase 3 trials which test a shot in tens of thousands of volunteers. “This phase 3 must take longer because we need to see how truly protective the vaccine is and we also need to see how safe it is,” Harris added.

The WHO is co-leading the COVAX facility, an initiative focused on ensuring equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. On Friday, Gavi, which is also co-leading COVAX, said that 76 high-income countries have now committed to joining the facility.

This announcement followed a warning from WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus against vaccine nationalism. "In our interconnected world, if people in low- and middle-income countries miss out on vaccines, the virus will continue to kill and the economic recovery globally will be delayed,” said Ghebreyesus

“So, using vaccines as a global public good is in the national interest of each and every country. Vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it,” he added.