Amid a pandemic that has taken nearly 1.5 million lives worldwide, there’s light at the end of the tunnel: The imminent introduction of two COVID-19 vaccines, with more in the pipeline.
With government approval expected soon, the first people will receive the vaccines produced by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech and, separately, Moderna within weeks. A third vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, may not be far behind.
These vaccines were produced in record time—beating all but the most optimistic of forecasts. How did this modern miracle of science come about?
The answer is complex but also simple: Scientists, industry, and governments collaborated in an international race against the clock, often with immigrant innovators at the fore, powered by trade networks and supply chains that span the globe.
Role of Immigrants in Vaccine Development
Immigrants or children of immigrants played key roles in producing all three leading vaccine candidates, illustrating how immigrants have long boosted innovative industries. To summarize from Stewart Anderson (here) and Ilya Somin (here):
- Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the husband and wife team that founded BioNTech, are children of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany as guest-workers. Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla is a Greek veterinarian who joined the firm in 1983 and rose over the years to senior roles.
- Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of Moderna, emigrated with his parents from Lebanon to Canada as a teenager. Moderna’s CEO is Stéphane Bancel, who immigrated to the United States from France.
- Moncef Slaoui, the scientist who heads the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed initiative, emigrated from Morocco to Belgium at the age of 17 and eventually came to the United States.
The role of immigrants in innovation is nothing new. Increasing the share of college-educated immigrants in the population by 1% increases patents per capita by 6%—a common proxy for innovation—according to one widely-cited study. Nor is the innovation that immigrants bring limited to the college educated.
Vaccine Inputs Sourced and Manufactured Around the World
Like immigration, international trade and global supply chains are critical to the successful manufacture of vaccines. Pfizer and BioNTech are producing their vaccine at multiple locations in the United States and abroad, including in Germany, Belgium, Algeria, Egypt, China, Turkey, Ireland, and Singapore, according to a summary by the Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome. Moderna is manufacturing its vaccine in the United States, Switzerland, and Spain.
Key inputs come from all around the globe. The active elements in both vaccines are encapsulated in “lipid nanoparticles” that Pfizer and BioNTech obtain from Acuitas, a specialist Canadian company, reports the Financial Times.
Many vaccines depend on adjuvants, a secondary chemical that acts alongside the vaccine to provoke the right kind of immune response and ensure the immune system “remembers” it. The active ingredient in one widely-used adjuvant “comes from the soapbark tree, which grows in the mountains of Chile,” reports Bloomberg.
But alternatives are being developed: The California-based biotech firm Amyris has been testing an adjuvant produced by fermenting raw sugarcane in Brazil and then processing that product in American factories. The company has committed to deliver 10 tons of its product by the end of the year, Bloomberg adds.
Vials to carry the vaccine must be produced in huge numbers as well. Iconic glass manufacturer Corning developed a tiny medical glass container dubbed Valor that is fortified against “cracks, flakes and breaks that could thwart global efforts to stop the coronavirus,” reports the Wall Street Journal.
Corning is manufacturing its vials in New York and North Carolina, but vial production is also global. The giant German glassmaker Schott AG produces huge quantities of medical borosilicate for vials at its four melting facilities: two in Germany and one each in India and Brazil.
Vaccine Distribution Powered by American Businesses
Logistics firms such as UPS have been preparing for a global D-Day-like operation for months. UPS is expanding its healthcare-related facilities in California, Hungary, Shanghai, the United Kingdom and at the UPS Worldport in Kentucky. UPS has also built out its dry ice production capabilities to facilitate storage and shipping.
FedEx reports it has “over 5,000 facilities, 80,000 vehicles, 670 aircraft and half a million team members around the globe” ready to deploy. The shipper also has nearly 90 cold-chain facilities across its global network to store vaccines as needed.
For weeks already, vaccines that are nearing approval have been produced and shipped to be administered at the earliest possible date. Anticipating approvals, United began charter cargo flights to pre-position vaccines in late November.
Government Support Critical to Success
Government policies and actions have also contributed in obvious ways. Trade agreements, including the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), have fostered innovation by incentivizing high-risk, capital-intensive investment by biopharmaceutical companies. This helped produce breakthrough technologies like the mRNA vaccines advanced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
Similarly, the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement has fostered the adoption of electronic customs clearance procedures and made port-of-entry procedures faster—critical reforms for the vaccines’ success.
Operation Warp Speed has also made a big contribution. This is even true with firms such as Pfizer and BioNTech, which did not receive funding directly but whose work benefited from the government’s advanced purchase commitments that supported production. Other governments have played similar roles.
If inventing, producing, and distributing vaccines for COVID-19 is a global enterprise, it is in part because an undertaking so vast has to be. I explored this familiar ground four years ago:
The web of domestic and international trade today allows us to devise products of such marvelous complexity that no single person knows how to produce them. What’s more, we mostly never meet our collaborators in the creation of medical scanners, smartphones, or even the lowly pencil…
Our ancestors would find many of these products indistinguishable from magic, but the way we make them is even more astounding. In fact, the supporting cast in their production includes people who may have no idea their labor is contributing to these final products.
Health experts warn that the pandemic will only be overcome when vaccination rates worldwide reach a share of the population—estimated between half and 80%—that provides herd immunity. So, Americans will only be free of the COVID-19 threat when it is defeated all around the globe.
We will beat this pandemic, and we will do so because people, companies, and governments all around the globe rallied to do so. International trade, immigration, and global supply chains are poised to deliver. It may be their finest hour.