At time of writing, over 7.3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccinations have found their way into people’s arms, and that number is increasing by more than 28 million every day. That’s fantastic news, but there’s a lot more that goes into a vaccine rollout than just the medicines. There’s PPE, or personal protective equipment, which we quickly learned the importance of early in the pandemic when we repeatedly discovered we didn’t have enough. Not that anybody would have been able to wear it if we did, since nurses and other healthcare workers were in short supply too.
But even more fundamental to a successful shot than the person administering it is the shot itself – that is to say, the syringe that actually gets the vaccine into our bodies. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), though, that’s where the next global shortage is going to be – unless the world takes swift action to start producing more.
“A shortage of syringes is unfortunately a real possibility,” WHO expert Lisa Hedman told a UN briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. “[With] the global manufacturing capacity of around six billion a year for immunization syringes[,] it’s pretty clear that a deficit in 2022 of over a billion could happen if we continue with business as usual.”
The current rate of vaccinations – nearly 7 billion per year – is nearly double the number routinely administered. It’s also a cool billion more than the number of syringes normally produced each year worldwide, Hedman explained, making shortages inevitable unless factories step up production.
Meanwhile, Hedman advised, national health authorities should plan their supply needs well in advance to avoid the “hoarding, panic buying and type of situation” seen early on in the pandemic. Shifting factory production “from one type of syringe to another or [an] attempt to expand capacity for specialized immunization syringes … takes time and investment,” she warned, which could lead to delays in vaccinations – including routine jabs such as childhood vaccines.
“[A] global shortage of immunization syringes … could in turn lead to serious problems such as slowing down immunization efforts,” Hedman said, noting that particularly in low-income countries there were also “safety concerns” that a lack of syringes may encourage the reuse of needles. Currently, less than one in 40 people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, and countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa are already experiencing delays to vaccine supply.
The 7 billion vaccines administered so far is, it’s fair to say, a whopping figure, but it’s nothing compared to how many are hoped to be delivered over the next couple of years. Vaccine manufacturers expect to produce upwards of 80 billion doses in 2022 and 2023, with international organizations like the WHO, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization setting out targets to inoculate 70 percent of every country by mid-2022. But meeting those goals without compromising the delivery of the worldwide vaccine rollout will require a big step up in manufacturing and supply capacity, Hedman said.
“When you think about the magnitude of the number of injections being given to respond to the pandemic, this is not a place where we can afford shortcuts, shortages, or anything short of full safety for patients and healthcare staff,” she said.