Creating a COVID-19 vaccine is only the first step. It’ll take years to manufacture and distribute


Adam Kamradt-Scott, University of Sydney

The world is hoping a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine will soon become available. So far, more than 160 candidate vaccines are in development.

Some 31 of these have entered human clinical trials. One of them is Russia’s “Sputnik V”, which was granted approval by the country’s health ministry last week. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) and a large number of international experts have urged Russia to conduct more testing to ensure the vaccine’s safety before using it.

But even if this candidate and others are proven to be safe and effective, developing the vaccine is just the first step.

Some of the biggest challenges in getting everyone vaccinated still lie ahead.




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Challenge 1: manufacturing the vaccine

The first major challenge after a vaccine is developed is to produce enough of it to start vaccination programs. One estimate puts global vaccine production capacity at up to 6.4 billion doses per year, though this is based on single-dose influenza vaccines.

But some of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development require two or three injections. This means, if the same technology for COVID-19 vaccines is required as for influenza vaccines, global production is severely reduced.

It has been estimated that to achieve sufficient levels of immunity among the global population with a two-dose vaccine, we would need between 12 billion and 15 billion doses – roughly twice the world’s current total vaccine manufacturing capacity.

Shifting to exclusively manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine will also mean shortages of other vaccines such as those for preventable childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. So prioritising COVID-19 could cost many other lives.

Can we buy vaccines in advance?

Given these production constraints, governments have previously tended to sign advance purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers to guarantee access. These commercial-in-confidence agreements are usually signed in secret, often with different prices being charged to different governments depending on whether they are the first customer or 30th and their ability to pay.

It also means countries that can afford to buy vaccine stocks in advance get first access, leaving poorer nations to miss out or be forced to wait years. This has happened on at least two previous occasions.

In 2007, Indonesia found it couldn’t purchase H5N1 influenza (bird flu) vaccines despite being one of the worst-affected countries at the time. This was because several other richer countries had already organised advanced purchase agreements, and led Indonesia to temporarily withhold sharing virus samples with the WHO in retaliation. And in 2009, rich nations bought up almost all the stock of H1N1 influenza vaccines, crowding out less-developed nations.

A ‘my country first’ policy means richer countries can secure supply of vaccines at the expense of poorer countries.
Morning Brew/Unsplash

Most of the world’s leaders, including Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have stated that a successful COVID-19 vaccine should be shared equitably. In July, Australia was one of 165 countries to join the “COVAX” initiative launched by the WHO, global vaccine alliance GAVI, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The initiative aims to deliver 2 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021.

Countries representing 60% of the world’s population have signed up to this initiative, but not everyone has and we’ve already seen a number of instances in which governments have sought to gain priority access over others. The problem with this vaccine nationalism is that rather than being based on equity or need, it will create global supply problems with those countries that have special deals getting access to the vaccine first.




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Challenge 2: distributing the vaccine

The second key challenge is distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. Most vaccines need to be transported in cold storage, which presents a problem for many parts of the world where electricity failure is a common feature of daily life.

The WHO has estimated up to 50% of vaccines are wasted every year, often because of inadequate temperature control in supply chains.

With the marked reduction in international passenger air travel, the movement of cargo has also slowed. This will need to be addressed with airlines ahead of any attempts to distribute the vaccine.

Beyond the initial transport from the manufacturer, getting the vaccine to rural and remote communities requires sophisticated logistical services, which many poorer countries lack.

Without substantial investment to strengthen international and national supply chains, it will be years before vaccines can reach everyone who needs them.

How is Australia placed?

In Australia, criticism has emerged the government hasn’t done enough to secure access to vaccines, with some reports also suggesting New Zealand has invested more in global vaccine initiatives.

But Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday that Australia is in “advanced negotiations with a range of different companies with regards to a vaccine,” one of which is reportedly the University of Oxford’s candidate.

While some might argue more needs to be done to secure a COVID-19 vaccine for Australians, it’s not necessarily the best move to enter into advanced purchase agreements. They are expensive, and there’s no guarantee the candidates Australia signs up for will be safe and effective.

Nevertheless, the government’s approach has been to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket, supporting multiple vaccine initiatives. It has also supported multilateral initiatives such as granting more than US$10 million to CEPI, one of the key organisations managing the COVAX initiative.

It’s also good to see the government is willing to support initiatives such as COVAX that aim to make the vaccine available to those countries with limited means to pay. While some may see this as excessive altruism, it’s in Australia’s broader interest, given borders are likely to remain closed until a vaccine has been made widely available. The quicker the world is vaccinated, the sooner we can reopen our borders.

What this means for the average Australian is that we should get ready for a long wait. Even if the Australian government signs an advanced purchase agreement to secure priority access to a safe and effective COVID vaccine, initial supplies are going to be extremely limited.

Priority groups like frontline health-care workers will get first access, followed by those who are more vulnerable to serious illness. If you’re otherwise fit and healthy, you should be prepared that it could take up to a few years after vaccines become available.

If they become available sooner, it will only be because countries have agreed to work together like never before. Let’s hope they can do it.




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The Conversation


Adam Kamradt-Scott, Associate professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air



Pictured is a slag pile at Broken Hill in New South Wales. Slag is a man-made waste product created during smelting.
Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Author provided

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, The University of Queensland

Last month, scientists uncovered a mineral called Edscottite. Minerals are solid, naturally occurring substances that are not living, such as quartz or haematite. This new mineral was discovered after an examination of the Wedderburn Meteorite, a metallic-looking rock found in Central Victoria back in 1951.

Edscottite is made of iron and carbon, and was likely formed within the core of another planet. It’s a “true” mineral, meaning one which is naturally occurring and formed by geological processes either on Earth or in outer-space.

But while the Wedderburn Meteorite held the first-known discovery of Edscottite, other new mineral discoveries have been made on Earth, of substances formed as a result of human activities such as mining and mineral processing. These are called anthropogenic minerals.

While true minerals comprise the majority of the approximately 5,200 known minerals, there are about 208 human-made minerals which have been approved as minerals by the International Mineralogical Association.

Some are made on purpose and others are by-products. Either way, the ability to manufacture minerals has vast implications for the future of our rapidly growing population.

Modern-day alchemy

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face. While governments debate the future of coal-burning power stations, carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere. We need innovative strategies to capture it.

Actively manufacturing minerals such as nesquehonite is one possible approach. It has applications in building and construction, and making it requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.




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Nesquehonite occurs naturally when magnesian rocks slowly break down. It has been identified at the Paddy’s River mine in the Australian Capital Territory and locations in New South Wales.

But scientists discovered it can also be made by passing carbon dioxide into an alkaline solution and having it react with magnesium chloride or sodium carbonate/bicarbonate.

This is a growing area of research.

Other synthetic minerals such as hydrotalcite are produced when asbestos tailings passively absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, as discovered by scientists at the Woodsreef asbestos mine in New South Wales.

You could say this is a kind of “modern-day alchemy” which, if taken advantage of, could be an effective way to suck carbon dioxide from the air at a large scale.

Meeting society’s metal demands

Mining and mineral processing is designed to recover metals from ore, which is a natural occurrence of rock or sediment containing sufficient minerals with economically important elements. But through mining and mineral processing, new minerals can also be created.

Smelting is used to produce a range of commodities such as lead, zinc and copper, by heating ore to high temperatures to produce pure metals.

The process also produces a glass-like waste product called slag, which is deposited as molten liquid, resembling lava.

This is a backscattered electron microscope image of historical slag collected from a Rio Tinto mine in Spain.
Image collected by Anita Parbhakar-Fox at the University of Tasmania (UTAS)

Once cooled, the textural and mineralogical similarities between lava and slag are crystal-clear.

Micro-scale inspection shows human-made minerals in slag have a unique ability to accommodate metals into their crystal lattice that would not be possible in nature.

This means metal recovery from mine waste (a potential secondary resource) could be an effective way to supplement society’s growing metal demands. The challenge lies in developing processes which are cost effective.




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Ethically-sourced jewellery

Our increasing knowledge on how to manufacture minerals may also have a major impact on the growing synthetic gem manufacturing industry.

In 2010, the world was awestruck by the engagement ring given to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, valued at about £300,000 (AUD$558,429).

The ring has a 12-carat blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds, with a setting made from 18-carat white gold.

Replicas of it have been acquired by people across the globe, but for only a fraction of the price. How?

In 1837, Marc Antoine Gardin demonstrated that sapphires (mineralogically known as corundum or aluminium oxide) can be replicated by reacting metals with other substances such as chromium or boric acid. This produces a range of seemingly identical coloured stones.

On close examination, some properties may vary such as the presence of flaws and air bubbles and the stone’s hardness. But only a gemologist or gem enthusiast would likely notice this.

Diamonds can also be synthetically made, through either a high pressure, high temperature, or chemical vapour deposition process.

Synthetic diamonds have essentially the same chemical composition, crystal structure and physical properties as natural diamonds.
Instytut Fizyki Uniwersytet Kazimierza Wielkiego

Creating synthetic gems is increasingly important as natural stones are becoming more difficult and expensive to source. In some countries, the rights of miners are also violated and this poses ethical concerns.

Medical and industrial applications

Synthetic gems have industrial applications too. They can be used in window manufacturing, semi-conducting circuits and cutting tools.

One example of an entirely manufactured mineral is something called yttrium aluminum garnet (or YAG) which can be used as a laser.

In medicine, these lasers are used to correct glaucoma. In dental surgery, they allow soft gum and tissues to be cut away.

The move to develop new minerals will also support technologies enabling deep space exploration through the creation of ‘quantum materials’.

Quantum materials have unique properties and will help us create a new generation of electronic products, which could have a significant impact on space travel technologies. Maybe this will allow us to one day visit the birthplace of Edscottite?




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In decades to come, the number of human-made minerals is set to increase. And as it does, so too does the opportunity to find new uses for them.

By expanding our ability to manufacture minerals, we could reduce pressure on existing resources and find new ways to tackle global challenges.The Conversation

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Senior Research Fellow in Geometallurgy/Applied Geochemistry, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, Principal Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.