It is not enough to manufacture a new vaccine on an unprecedented scale. Nor to break all development speed records. Covid-19 jabs, once approved, need to be distributed intact. Shipping is a logistical feat that could determine the market share of rivals Moderna and Pfizer.
German logistics giant Deutsche Post DHL this week pointed out that two-thirds of the world's population would struggle to access any vaccine that had to be stored at freezing temperatures. US health officials last week also said the complexity of Pfizer's plan for vaccine storage would make it hard to deliver efficiently.
The issue is acute for a new type of vaccine that uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to trigger an immune response. To prevent degradation, the vaccine needs to be stored and distributed at very cold temperatures, making it hard to administer jabs in conventional settings such as pharmacies.
Moderna says its mRNA vaccine can now be stored at minus 20C. That may give it an edge over the mRNA vaccine being produced by Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech, which needs to be stored at minus 70C, though the US drugmaker says its temperature-controlled shipping containers solve some concerns.
Other Covid-19 vaccines, such as those made by Sanofi, Novavax and AstraZeneca, are expected to be stored at normal fridge temperatures. Yet even this requirement can be tricky. The World Health Organization says half of all vaccines are wasted due to refrigeration failure. One Covid-19 vaccine candidate — made by US biotech Inovio — can be kept at room temperature, though doubts about its chances have sent shares down two-thirds since June.
Effectiveness is the determinant of success. But speed matters, too. Here mRNA vaccines have the advantage. They are likely to be available earlier than most rivals. Wealthy countries at the front of the queue for jabs are best placed to deal with storage challenges.
Bernstein estimates Pfizer/BioNTech's jab could take US$6 billion ($8.9b) of a US$21b market in 2021. Moderna might make US$3.5b of sales that year, though its market share would fall steeply over time. By 2024, it reckons the relatively inexpensive Sanofi/GSK jab, which does not need particularly cold storage, would have the biggest share of revenues in the US$8b annual market for booster jabs.
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Given the urgent need to arrest the pandemic, timing will trump convenience at first. But vaccines that are easier to handle could win out in the end.
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