Cold Chain

How an Ultracold COVID Vaccine Amplifies Challenges to a Medical Supply Chain

Dec 23, 2020
Logistics, Business and Public Policy

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Though creating a COVID-19 vaccine in record time was a breakthrough, the next step, distribution, will place extraordinary demand on key raw materials – specifically dry ice – and distribution channels. "There are always shortages. You always over-forecast, under-forecast, under-procure, over-procure. This is the nature of supply chains,” Maryland Smith supply chain expert and research professor Sandor Boyson says in a recent Washington Post video story, “The Coronavirus Vaccine Is Here. Now the Race Is on for More Glass and Ice.

The vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE must stay extremely cold. between -112° and -76°F. Its shipping and storage require a supply chain, as the video narration describes “like a vaccine conveyor belt stretching from plants to planes to the place of injection for nearly 300 million Americans… Any kinks in this chain could slow down everything.”

The concept of getting vaccines to clinics is nothing new, but volume and urgency make the COVID vaccine supply chain an extraordinary challenge, says Boyson, who has written “Vaccine Supply Chain: Federal Government Must Pivot from Venture Capital Seeder to Overseer” at The Hill. “Everbody’s trying to ramp up, scale up, and pivot. And it’s going to take time. And it’s going to be very sloppy. And it’s not going to be precise.”

Recent national media headlines have reflected Boyson’s point:

As Ultra-Cold Pfizer Vaccines Ship Out, Dry Ice Supplies Tighten in Northeast” – Marketplace Radio

U.S. Quarantines Pfizer Vaccine Shipments in California and Alabama After Transit ‘Anomaly’ Left Vials Too Cold” - CNBC

Pfizer Decision To Turn Off Temperature Sensors Forced Scramble To Ensure COVID-19 Vaccines Kept Ultra-Cold” - STAT

While the Pfizer vaccine requires special, ultracold freezers, the subsequent COVID vaccine produced by Moderna requires shipping and storage at -4°F making it storable in conventional refrigerator-freezers at clinics and pharmacies. “But a limited supply of both vaccines in the initial rollout means that the vaccine available is the one that distribution centers will get,” Boyson says.

Boyson, who more broadly assessed the national vaccine supply chain last month via Smith Brain Trust, says in the Washington Post video: “I’m still not sure… In my gut, I’m not sure we have that command and control, that intelligence in the network to be able to effectively allocate and distribute to all the parts of the country that we really need it to go to right now.”

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About the Expert(s)

Sandor Boyson

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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