From Point A to Point B: How supply chains will impact vaccine distribution

Dec 30, 2020 | Business, General News, Innovation, Students

The logistics of how everyday necessities get onto the shelves of the local store probably didn’t enter the mind of most Americans—that is, until the global COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the United States. Rumors of toilet paper shortages filled social media, and suddenly “it’s a supply chain issue” was part of our vernacular.   

Now, according to Louisiana Tech University’s sustainable supply chain management students, this logistical management of getting essentials from point A to point B may just be what will be responsible for getting us back to normalcy.  

COVID-19 vaccine bottles“During the COVID pandemic, the U.S. consumer has experienced a shortage of cans, paper bags, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and toilet paper,” said Dr. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Management in the College of Business. “We have been bombarded with stories of lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect our frontline medical workers and first responders. Now, we are likely to see similar shortages delay vaccine production. During the summer, there was a little-recognized shortage of medical plastics, which delayed the processing of COVID tests.”

Watson and three of his students looked at how supply chain will affect—both positively and negatively—the distribution of vaccines that are viewed as an end to the pandemic.

“The complexity and variability of when and where the vaccine will be transported, distributed, and consumed is a significant issue that poses a threat to the solution to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19,” said Bailey Edwards, a senior in the Sustainable Supply Chain Management (SSCM) major. “Not only is this a national problem, but also it’s a state problem, as states will have the decision on priority in some cases.”

According to Edwards, even a slight inconsistency in planning can significantly impact the speed and efficiency of the supply chain.

“This is why it is important we talk about the distribution of this highly anticipated vaccine. The complexity of its distribution is likely to create discrepancy and slow down the supply chain, meaning distribution could be an ongoing problem over the next year,” Edwards explained. “Another added problem to the ability to get the vaccine to its consumers is its complex transportation requirements to maintain its quality for usage.”

With the vaccine’s approval arriving right around the holidays, further strain could be placed on already-stressed delivery companies. Many of the nation’s delivery services have experienced unprecedented volume due to the pandemic and holiday season.

“FedEx, UPS, and the airlines are the prime shippers of the vaccine,” Watson said. “There is only so much cargo space and it is especially constrained for temperature-controlled vehicles (trucks and planes). While the vaccine will have priority, there are likely going to be delays in transit.”

“It also appears the vaccine will be distributed separately from the supplies necessary to administer them. Asymmetric material flows of vaccine and the medical supplies during the holiday season (with its high demand on transportation) may cause delays in administering the vaccine,” Watson explained.

John Spence, a senior SSCM major, noted that the prioritization of vaccine deliveries—while a must— could pose problems for the delivery of other supplies over time.

“From a shipping standpoint, most temperature-controlled carriers also provide basic dry service, but very few dry carriers are also in the temperature-controlled business, causing a constraint about who may be used to ship the vaccines,” Spence said. “Vaccines are not being rushed out of the lab, but rather being raced to the patient. Having proper shipping methods and materials are very capital intensive. Currently, there may only be a limited number of companies that can offer their services to ship the vaccines nationwide. From their standpoint, to ship the vaccines, they may have to put the shipment of other products on the back burner, causing another supply chain variance down the line.”

At present, there are approximately 10 vaccines currently in advanced stages of evaluation and two that have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the U.S. Both the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 require two doses to be effective—and important thing to note, particularly when hearing reports of dosage production in reference to the number of patients being vaccinated.

“When you hear there are a certain number of vaccine available, we must understand that number is only going to treat half that many patients (and that is at a maximum,” said Watson. “There will always be problems with perishability, loss due to products being stored incorrectly, or doses going unused once thawed.”

For example, the Pfizer vaccine must be used within 10 days once removed from the manufacturing/storage location, or 25 days in total if the specially created shipping container is recharged with dry ice. After thawing, doctors and pharmacists have just six hours to administer the dose.

“Since the two doses must be administered 21 days apart, it will be very difficult for providers to ensure all of the doses are administered. Normally, they would hold half the pack back to ensure a second dose, but perishability makes that problematic. Therefore, it will be incumbent on planners to ensure continuous access to the vaccine once it begins distribution.”

Though most state and local governments are prioritizing vaccine administration in the early weeks and months, demand will only continue to increase with President-elect Joe Biden wanting 100 million Americans vaccinated during his first 100 days in office, placing more strain on available supplies.

“Production will be high, and will require a great deal of process monitoring and control to ensure proper quality,” said Spence. “However, high demand for the vaccine must follow the increase in production. Possible lack of trust in the various vaccines may mitigate the demand for them. If the demand for the vaccine is not there, many companies will lose enormous amounts of money.”

Prioritization has become a key element in distribution planning—from the highest levels of federal government, down. In that regard, senior SSCM major John Garrett Smith said there are many questions we don’t have answers to at the moment.

“Which countries will get the vaccine first? Do these countries have the necessary infrastructure to deliver the vaccine to its hospitals—think of potholes, port access, and runways? Since the vaccines must be refrigerated, do these countries have transportation that can refrigerate the vaccines? What if countries cannot afford the transportation requirements? All of these questions are extremely important, but the most important question is are there enough vaccines to go around?”

Smith argues that this becomes a humanitarian crisis if the answer to that final question is “no.” He noted, “This is like the toilet paper problem, but literally every human being on Earth needs ‘toilet paper’ now.”

Through Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government has worked to ensure Americans have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. The Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services have been working with pharmaceutical companies and other medical device manufacturers to develop the means of manufacturing and delivering the vaccine since March 2020. They have worked not only to ensure that the vaccine is developed quickly and that manufacturing is done concurrent with development, but also to invest in companies that will provide the U.S. the ability to manufacture doses.

From a supply chain prospective, there are many obstacles in the roll out of the vaccine, but with proper planning and prioritization, there may just be light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

“The companies that can correctly develop and manage a sustainable supply chain for vaccine distribution will ensure economic well-being for themselves,” said Spence. “While creating a sustainable supply chain for vaccine distribution is a very daunting task, it is one that will, quite literally, save lives.”