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Five things to know about the journey of a COVID-19 vaccine, from the lab to your arm

April 7 is World Health Day, a campaign managed by the World Health Organisation to create awareness of a specific health theme around the world. Giving ‘health’ a day for focus has given decades worth of issues global attention. Even if just for a day it serves as an opportunity to give light to heroes or areas of work we may not come across in our daily lives, or which may not affect us directly.

However this year, there is one health issue that every person on the globe is aware of or has been affected by: COVID-19 and the vaccine.

2021 will involve the vaccination of billions of people in the Asia-Pacific region - but how do we get the vaccine from the manufacturer to each of us who will receive it? We took a look at the ways trade can facilitate the movement of billions of vaccines and associated goods around the Asia-Pacific.

A medical worker in Beijing wears Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Photo: Bofu Shaw/Unsplash

1.       It’s about more than just the vaccine

Transporting COVID-19 vaccines around the world is important, but no vaccines can be administered without a plethora of additional medical equipment. Think vials and cold storage units for transportation and storage, medical grade alcohol, syringes and cotton buds for the actual vaccination, and masks, gloves and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the medical professionals administering the vaccines.

Altogether, these pieces make the distribution of the vaccine around the world a highly complicated dance.

The COVID-19 vaccine is moved from a vial to a syringe in the United States. Photo: Steven Cornfield/Unsplash

2.       Vaccines can be a challenge to distribute

You’ve probably heard by now that some vaccines need to travel at very – very – cold temperatures. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for example needs to be kept at a temperature around -70 degrees Celsius, and has had a special transport box developed to facilitate its transport. Further to the temperature, vaccines need to be kept in sterile environments, with no chance of contamination. And they need to be kept secure – COVID vaccines are valuable cargo.

Each of these factors make the vaccines really challenging to distribute, especially to more remote parts of the world that require multiple transfers.

Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juarez de la Ciudad de Mexico – a key transportation hub for Mexico and Latin America

3.       We need new connections to distribute the vaccine

As well as the challenges of cold-storage, the actual flying, driving and shipping of vaccines and associated equipment around the world require new transport routes. DHL has estimated approximately 200,000 pallet shipments and 15,000 flights will be required to distribute vaccines globally. Additional to these figures are the many truck and train trips required to reach less-connected cities and towns.

This is a particular challenge for communities living in remote settings, far away from capital cities and infrastructure links.

Containers in Singapore - one of the APEC region’s largest trading ports. Photo: Chuttersnap/Unsplash

4.       Trade barriers could slow the distribution of the vaccine

Each of the items named in #1 can face different trade barriers which slow their trade. Trade barriers can include rules and regulations like requiring physical paperwork to transfer goods at a port, or the payment of a tariff – a tax or duty paid on import. Using tariffs as an example in the APEC region, they can be up to 6% on vaccines, 20.7% on syringes, and 30% on specialised cooling boxes required to carry some of the vaccines.

APEC 2021 SOM Chair, Vangelis Vitalis speaks to international media on March 11 about the role APEC can play in supporting the trade of essential goods around the region in response to COVID-19.

5.       Trade can play an important role in solving these challenges

Trade is no silver bullet, but it has an important role to play in enabling the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. At APEC 2021, government officials will be looking at ways the organisation of 21 economies can not only reduce barriers to the trade of vaccines, but facilitate their movement. This could include, for example, what are known as non-tariff trade barriers – like paperwork at the border, rather than a streamlined digital process.

By reducing barriers to the trade of vaccines and vaccine-related items, APEC will be able to help speed up the distribution of these important products, decrease their cost of use and importantly, make them more accessible to the three billion people living around the APEC region.

There are many things we could do to help vaccines and related goods move across borders – both in terms of reducing trade barriers but also boosting efforts to facilitate trade.

APEC has a history of collaboration in times of crisis, such as during SARS and the GFC. Last year, APEC trade ministers issued a Declaration to Facilitate the Movement of Essential Goods to send a signal to the world that APEC was committed to ensuring the flow of essential goods – including medical supplies – around the region.