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The unlikely winners in the global vaccine race

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Israel, The United Arab Emirates and the UK have delivered hugely efficient vaccine rollouts

Three small countries – Israel, The United Arab Emirates and the UK – are leading the global race to vaccinate against Covid. But what are the cultural, political and digital reasons for their ability to reach so many so fast? Yam Derfler, head of innovation at AirDoctor, tells Health Tech World that India will be the one to watch.

Have we turned the corner? For many countries, the answer is looking more like “yes” as each day passes. Since only the beginning of January, the global vaccination rate has increased 17 times.

That’s really good news, because it turns out that Covid-19 might be more dangerous than previously thought. As this article states, it could be that most infections are from people who have no symptoms, so the start of country-wide vaccinations is essential.

The world has also collectively sighed with relief because the vaccines seem to be working. A study was recently released showing that the Pfizer vaccine is 94 per cent effective in “real world” conditions.

An ideal laboratory?

The study was based on 1.2 million Israelis, 50 per cent of whom received the vaccine (and 50 per cent that did not). It was the first test of a Covid-19 vaccine at such a scale, and Israel was chosen because it consistently has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

Israel is a leader in vaccination rates for various reasons. It has a small population (about 9 million people) living in a relatively small area. The vaccine rollout has also been supported by an army of volunteers, led by about 700 medical students, as well as an actual army.

But two factors are even more important. Israel has a highly-rated digitized medical record system , combined with an insurance system that, although compulsory, still provides some choice in the form of four different HMOs. The country’s HMOs have been complimented for their efficiency, which was evident as they set up testing centers and quickly inoculated millions of people.

Israel has also been the first country in the world to “repackage” the vaccine, which requires very low temperatures to remain safe. Israel created refrigerated shipping techniques which allow vaccinations in remote locations.

As a result of these steps, Israel has vaccinated more than 53 per cent of its population so far.

International strategy

Another country at the front of the global vaccination race is the UAE, which has also given a first dose to more than half its population. By coincidence, its population is about the same size as Israel’s, it is also in the Middle East, and it recently signed a peace accord with the other Middle East vaccination leader, Israel.

However, the UAE took a different approach on the way to leading in vaccinations. It wants to develop as a regional power (one of the reasons for the peace accord), so it made sure early on to take an important role in vaccine distribution.

Whereas many Western countries were reluctant to use Chinese vaccines, the UAE worked closely with China to observe its development process. By September, the UAE was inoculating essential workers with China’s Sinopharm vaccination.

The UAE is now beginning to act as a logistical center for global vaccine distribution. It has ordered excess amounts of vaccine in order to supply countries across the Middle East and Africa that have in turn placed substantial orders with the UAE. It also initiated the “Hope Consortium”, an organization for handling the difficult storage and shipping needs of the vaccine as it is distributed internationally from Abu Dhabi, from which two-thirds of the world’s population can be reached within a four-hour flight time.

Furthermore, the UAE is building a manufacturing center and will be the first nation in the Middle East to produce vaccines, through a licensing agreement with Sinopharm.

National focus

In third place is the UK, where almost a third of the population has received a first dose.

In many ways, the UK has followed a plan that is the opposite of the UAE’s. Whereas the UAE is playing a regional role in vaccine distribution, the UK decided to focus on developing a vaccine using national resources. This allowed it to buy up enough supply early on to make sure that its relatively large population has enough “jabs” to go round.

In fact, the UK saw that being self-sufficient in vaccine manufacture was essential many years ago, as a result of Brexit. In 2018, it established the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre. Although the organization was not fully ready in time for Covid-19, it had already developed essential expertise. It used this expertise to evaluate numerous vaccine candidates, and was the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer solution. It also signed a deal with AstraZeneca – three months before the EU did – to make sure that it had more than enough supplies. The UK’s knowledge of vaccines was also important in building low-temperature storage and shipping facilities, which it did throughout 2020.

The culture factor

It’s fascinating to look at how the top three vaccination leaders each chose a different route to success that was influenced by cultural factors. After Brexit, the UK wants to show its independence; the UAE wants to be a leader in modernizing the Arab world; and Israel wants to keep on being a center of innovation (as a side note, it was just announced that the country plans to build vaccine production plants and act as “an international center in the fight against coronavirus”).

With vaccination efforts ramping up across the world, it will be interesting to see how other nations and cultures will perform. Keep your eye on India, for example, with its massive manufacturing capability, and on “COVIX Countries”, which are depending on the rest of the world for vaccine supply. France also claims that it will inoculate its entire population by the summer, even though the current vaccination rate is about four per cent. Last but not least, the United States has announced an ambitious timeline to inoculate the adult population by May. Perhaps one of these leaders will have enough “jabs” to help them out?

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