Bethany Smith administered a COVID-19 vaccination to a member of the public at a mass vaccination center for the Aneurin Bevan Health Trust on March 14, 2021 in Newbridge, Wales.

Huw Fairclough | Getty Images

According to a majority of epidemiologists, virologists and infectious disease specialists surveyed by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, mutations in the coronavirus could render current vaccines ineffective within a year.

The survey of 77 experts from some of the world’s leading academic institutions in 28 countries found that almost a third found a time frame of nine months or less. Less than one in eight respondents believed that mutations would never render current vaccines ineffective.

Two-thirds felt that we “had a year or less before the virus mutated to such an extent that the majority of first-generation vaccines became ineffective and new or modified vaccines were required”.

The poll, published on Tuesday, was conducted by the People’s Vaccine Alliance – a coalition of over 50 organizations including the African Alliance, Oxfam and UNAIDS – which advocate equal global access to Covid vaccines.

The vast majority of experts – 88% – said that persistent low vaccine coverage would make resistant mutations more likely in many countries. The People’s Vaccine Alliance warned that at the current rate of global vaccination programs, likely only 10% of people in most poor countries will be vaccinated in the next year.

Shots and boosters

In the past year, a number of emergency Covid vaccines were developed, tested and approved. The three vaccines currently used in the West – by Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as AstraZeneca and Oxford University – are mostly made in the US, UK or the EU, while China and Russia have developed their own vaccines.

Time is of the essence when it comes to life saving immunization. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in over 127 million Covid infections and over 2.7 million deaths worldwide. The US, Brazil, India, France, Russia and the UK were hardest hit, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The spread of more infectious (and in some cases potentially deadly) variants of the virus in the second half of 2020 has made the race to vaccinate as many people as possible a highly charged event. Vaccine developers have already announced that they will be developing booster shots for variants of Covid that have become more dominant, especially those first discovered in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

Where do vaccines go

The countries where the shots were designed or manufactured have given vaccination of their own populations varying degrees of priority over exporting cans to other locations.

The distribution of vaccines has already become a source of heightened tension, even among those who already have access to millions of doses, such as the EU and the UK, although both sides have now announced a “win-win” solution for supplies work towards it.

The World Health Organization has made appeals to wealthier nations accused of “stockpiling” vaccines to donate doses to their COVAX initiative, which aims to distribute vaccines fairly among poorer nations racing to protect their populations to be left behind quickly. The WHO said in January that the world was on the verge of “catastrophic moral failure” because of the unfair vaccine introductions.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance poll found that nearly three-quarters of respondents – including experts from Johns Hopkins University, Yale College, Imperial College, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Cambridge University and the University of Cape Town – said that the open sharing of technology and intellectual property could increase vaccine coverage worldwide.

The alliance called for “the lifting of pharmaceutical monopolies and the exchange of technology in order to urgently improve vaccine supply”.