The race is with the virus, but "vaccine nationalism" threatens the drive for international agreement and cooperation.
If you thought the space race was nerve-racking, you ain't seen nothing yet. Across the world, scientists in more than 100 disparate teams are working at breakneck speed to produce a coronavirus vaccine.
The stakes could not be higher. On the table are not just millions of lives and many billions of dollars and renminbi but perhaps a century's worth of geo-political power and status. If science is the exit to the lockdown forced upon the world by Covid-19, then a working vaccine holds the most likely key to the door.
Yesterday the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) published research revealing the breadth and scale of the race. No organisation has better intelligence given its raison d'être is to "stimulate and accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases".
"As of April 8, 2020, 115 vaccine candidates are in varying stages of development" the study, published in the journal Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, reveals. Of those, 78 are "confirmed as active". The status of the remaining 37 is hidden from public view.
The study found a wide range of technology platforms were being used, including traditional and novel approaches. While most are developing antigens that will be delivered via injection, there are also pills and nose drops in the pipeline.
Almost all aim to induce "neutralising antibodies" within the recipient. Most aim to act against the "spike protein" which surrounds Covid-19 and which it uses to inveigle its way into our respiratory cells.
The majority of the active projects are still in the exploratory or preclinical stages. However, five teams have vaccines that have moved into clinical development. At least two of those are already administering trial vaccines to volunteers in America and China.
Moderna, a US biotech company, was able to start clinical testing of its mRNA-based vaccine just 63 days after the genetic sequence of Covid-19 was released by Chinese scientists.
Unlike the space race, the dash for a Covid vaccine is dominated by private sector companies. Of the 78 confirmed vaccines in development, 72 per cent are being pursued by industry. They include big pharmaceutical businesses - such as Janssen, Sanofi, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKine - but most are smaller biotech firms. The remaining 28 per cent are being led by academic, public sector, and other not-for-profit organizations.
The geographic breakdown is also interesting. Of the confirmed active vaccine candidates, 46 per cent are in North America while China, Asia and Australia and Europe each have 18 per cent.
On the bright side, notes Cepi: "Lead developers of active Covid-19 vaccine candidates are distributed across 19 countries, which collectively account for over three-quarters of the global population."
But there are major hurdles ahead. Creating an effective vaccine in record time is one thing, but billions of individual doses would then have to be manufactured and distributed. And those hurdles have more to do with access to capital and politics than science.
Consider manufacturing. Vaccines have never before been manufactured at this scale and, because the vaccines which will ultimately be proven to work are not known yet, it is not clear what type of manufacturing process or factories will be needed.
According to Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of Cepi, this means production facilities will have to be set up in advance and vaccines produced in volume before we know they work.
"We need to move leading candidates into manufacture as soon as they are ready to roll", Hatchett told the Telegraph.
"We need to have inventory ahead of safety and efficacy data so it's ready for release as soon as [the data] comes in."
The other big hurdle will be in getting world leaders to see that the "race is with the virus", said Hatchett. The alternative is what he calls "vaccine nationalism".
"Our response is driven by three principles - speed, scale and access. A vaccine will be a scarce commodity when it first becomes available … it seems to us critical to protect health care systems first and then the most vulnerable groups."
Expect to see a major push to get an "equitable distribution" strategy for vaccines over the line at the G20 in the next few weeks. If an international deal can be reached, everyone will win. If not, the race may turn into a free-for-all.
You might bury your head in your hands at the thought of this, but it is not just altruism that drives agreements like these - it is enlightened self-interest.
"Most G20 countries do not have vaccine-manufacturing capacity and no country knows for sure it will have that facility for Covid-19", Hatchett notes.
Perhaps that shared uncertainty will be enough. It's one thing to win a race like this, it's quite another to lose it.