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After COVID Vaccine Breakthroughs, Eyes Turn to Supply Chain

Expert Warns of ‘Steep Challenge for Delivery’ as Massive Distribution Effort Ramps Up

By Gregory Muraski

COVID-19 vaccine vials

Photo by iStock

Although at least two highly promising vaccines for COVID-19 may be nearly ready to distribute, more planning and resources are needed to ensure that the vast quantities of life-saving drugs reach the public, a UMD supply chain expert says.

The announcements of effective COVID-19 vaccines on track to become widely available in 2021—last week by Pfizer and partner BioNTech, and on Monday by Moderna—are being hailed as momentous breakthroughs against the accelerating pandemic. But effectively deploying any vaccine, warns a University of Maryland expert on supply chains, will depend heavily on the coronavirus supply chain.

Officials from the federal program Operation Warp Speed have said they’ll be ready to distribute the medications as they become available, but  Sandor Boyson isn’t so sure. “There remains a real need for better coordination and funding across the coronavirus supply chain to ramp up distribution effectively,” he said.

That’s partly because Operation Warp Speed appears to end with vaccine distribution to states, said Boyson, a research professor in the Robert H. Smith School of Business with 30 years of experience as a senior supply chain and IT consultant for the National Institute of Standards and Technologies and a member of the Secretary of Commerce’s Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness.

The onus will then be on state governments to bring the vaccine to citizens—a necessity complicated by the requirement for cold storage of vaccines, with Pfizer’s requiring a temperature of -70 Celsius. “This leaves a steep challenge for delivery of an ultracold vaccine to rural areas with access limited by geography, '' he said.

Pivoting toward progress
Boyson, who wrote last summer in The Hill about the hurdles for the vaccine supply chain, said key actors along the coronavirus supply chain have recently been addressing “a whole new set of challenges—a pivot from vaccine development to imminent distribution.”

Operation Warp Speed, co-directed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense, represents a federal-level change—“from sponsoring seven vaccines to coordinating national vaccine supply chain design and delivery,” he said. The operation has contracted with McKesson, the United States’ largest distributor of health care products, to centralize vaccine supply and help deliver that supply to the states.

Further signaling proactivity, said Boyson: Federally required state plans for vaccine distribution were submitted for funding under deadline two weeks ago.

Both national and state plans will enlist pharmacy and grocery chains to become major distribution channels, he added, with federal contracts recently announced with CVS and Walgreens to launch mobile vaccination fleets that can serve 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 said. “A massive pivot and ramp-up to distribution is under way.”

Work to be Done
The National Academy of Science, Boyson said, recently estimated that just 10-15 million doses—enough to cover perhaps 5% of the U.S. population—will be available in the first wave of distribution. It could 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 said. “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.”

What’s really needed, he said, are “coronavirus war rooms” staffed by experts at the federal and state levels using appropriate information technology.

“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,” he said. “These are the key tasks as the vaccine distribution campaign thunders into being in the coming months.”

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