The prospect for a COVID-19 vaccine soon looks good as many trials show very high efficacy rates. There’s now real hope vaccines will be available in early 2021. However, developing an effective vaccine is only the first stage in the battle to beat the pandemic, and address the significant challenges still ahead.
We currently have thousands of Life Sciences organizations in over 170 countries actively working on vaccine development and supply. Estimates suggest up to 15 billion doses of vaccine are required worldwide. That equates to around 200,000 pallet shipments and over 15,000 flights. With temperature control ranges for vaccine storage and transportation as low as -80°C, we’re entering uncharted territory.
“The challenge of a lifetime”
An article for the World Economic Forum outlines the current situation: “The past half year has proven without a doubt the critical importance of a well-functioning healthcare supply chain….While the procurement, transport and distribution of such items as personal protective equipment (PPE) posed one of the greatest logistics challenges of our lifetime, this will pale in comparison to an even greater task ahead of us: vaccine logistics.”
In fact, there’s no part of the Life Sciences supply chain that will be unchanged by our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To succeed will required new levels of coordination and collaboration across Life Sciences manufacturing and supply chains. This places the focus on data – the secure and effective flow of information – and the information platforms that can make this happen. With vaccines approaching readiness, we need technology solutions that can address the key challenges, including:
Stopping the supply chain blowing hot and cold
Temperature control is the largest of the logistics challenges. This isn’t just about how to build a logistics network to handle these extreme temperatures. As the demand for vaccine outstrips supply for the foreseeable future, it’s easy to see more than one vaccine being distributed through a network – each with its own handling and temperature control requirements.
Meeting the needs of billions
The question then becomes how to get the vaccine from manufacturer to the point of immunization. Even under the best conditions, some COVID-19 vaccines have a shelf life of only fourteen days and have to be transported and stored under the most stringent conditions. We simply can’t have vaccines stuck in ports and terminals and we must be able to closely monitor their condition if that happens.
Supply chain coordination
It’s not just vaccines that are being shipped. The vaccine must have a support kit of needles, syringes, swabs, etc. Each part of the kit must be sourced, stored, managed, and delivered at exactly the right time. If it takes 15 billion vaccine doses, then that’s potentially 15 billion kits that must be assembled and added to the vaccines. This takes supply chain coordination and planning to a new level.
Stepping up vaccine manufacturing capacity
Pharma companies are realizing that they can’t meet manufacturing capacity themselves. For example, Johnson & Johnson has struck multiple manufacturing deals for its own COVID-19 vaccine program with plans to produce more than 1 billion doses. These deals must be quickly struck and production harmonized to ensure quality and delivery.
Devendra Mishra, executive director of the BSMA, comments on the US regulatory pressures the US is facing: “The formidable task of distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines when they are approved continues to be plagued by lack of a national policy for its administration.” A very similar picture is being played out in every jurisdiction in the world – that’s before we even start to talk about cross-border regulation of vaccines.
Timely information is the key
One of the biggest challenges facing Life Sciences is creating effective information flows that can align to material flows along the supply chain. What has been ad hoc has to become structural and embedded in a technology infrastructure that supports secure and transparent access of information.
The moves made within the industry to deploy IoT and RFID solutions to supply chain visibility and traceability have to be accelerated. AI and machine learning are needed to increase the efficiency and resilience of global supply chains.
All parties involved must be able to share information securely and effectively. We’ve already seen the standard of communication and collaboration between the industry, government, academia, and NGOs has improved during the pandemic but there’s still work to be done.
With so much information being created within the supply chain and so many partners needing access and visibility of that information, the trend towards enterprise technology platforms holds the key to success for vaccine logistics.
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