After Vaccine Breakthrough, Eyes Turn to the COVID Supply Chain

Expert warns of "a steep challenge for delivery"

Nov 12, 2020
Logistics, Business and Public Policy

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  The announcement this week that a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE was shown to be more than 90% effective and on track to potentially become widely available in 2021 is being hailed as a momentous breakthrough. But deploying any vaccine, warns Maryland Smith’s Sandor Boyson, will depend heavily on the coronavirus supply chain.

Even with the federal program Operation Warp Speed projecting readiness for distribution, Boyson warns that “coordination and funding” across the coronavirus supply chain will need to be better developed.

Boyson, a research professor with 30 years of experience as a senior supply chain and IT consultant including for NIST and as a U.S. Secretary of Commerce-appointed member of the Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness, says the onus will be on state governments to organize to bring the vaccine to its citizens. Operation Warp Speed’s function appears to end with vaccine distribution to states. “This leaves a steep challenge for delivery of an ultracold vaccine to rural areas with access limited by geography, '' he says, citing a recent ProPublica review of state distribution plans.

Signs of Progress

Boyson, who wrote at The Hill this summer “Vaccine Supply Chain: Federal Government Must Pivot from Venture Capital Seeder to Overseer,” says “key actors along the coronavirus supply chain” subsequently have been “pivoting to a whole new set of challenges- a pivot from vaccine development to imminent distribution.”

Operation Warp Speed, co-directed by the CDC and the Department of Defense, represents a federal-level pivot – “from sponsoring seven vaccines to coordinating national vaccine supply chain design and delivery,” he says. The operation has contracted with McKesson, the largest distributor of health care products to centralize vaccine supply and help deliver that supply to the states.

Further signaling proactivity, says Boyson: Federally required state plans for vaccine distribution were submitted for funding under deadline two weeks ago, including Virginia’s with a $76 million request to account for cold-chain support.

Both national and state plans will further enlist pharmacy and grocery chains to become major distribution channels, he adds, with a federal contract recently announced with CVS and Walgreens to launch mobile vaccination fleets that can go out to nursing home populations.

“As we go forward, the private logistics services industry is also mobilizing in support of vaccine distribution, building freezer farms, like UPS is doing, and special sensors and containerization for transport, Boyson says. “So, a massive pivot and ramp up to distribution is under way.”

Work to be Done

The reported Pfizer breakthrough will galvanize this pivot even more, Boyson says. “There remains a real need for better coordination and funding across the coronavirus supply chain to ramp up distribution effectively.”

The National Academy of Science, he notes, recently estimated that just 10-15 million doses covering 3-5% of the U.S. population will be available in the first wave of distribution and it will take two years to reach seemingly less vulnerable populations, such as teenagers.

“To accelerate this process, a national supply chain distribution map needs to be urgently completed by integrating state mapping efforts,” he says. “This will identify key distribution hubs, such as hospital complexes, or community distribution nodes, such as senior community centers, identified by state and region, along with estimated demand at each of these sites.”

In addition, Boyson concludes, “‘Coronavirus War Rooms’ need to be stood up at the national and state levels and staffed by supply chain experts. Real-time supply chain dashboards must be activated to enable these experts to dynamically track, effectively allocate and securely transport available supply to priority populations. These are the key tasks as the vaccine distribution campaign ‘thunders into being’ in the coming months.”

Related video: Maryland Smith’s Suresh Acharya describes the fundamentals and intricacies of a vaccine supply chain, via SupplyChainBrain’s “How will we distribute the COVID-19 vaccine?



About the Expert(s)

Dr. Sandor Boyson serves as Director, Supply Chain Management Center; and Research Professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park; and holds an affiliate faculty appointment at the Institute Of Systems Research, Clark School Of Engineering, College Park.

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