It won’t be easy, but supply chain companies say it’s possible that early Covid-19 vaccines will make their way to some of the U.S. population this year if cleared for emergency use, and that the logistics outlook is even better for distribution of additional vaccine candidates at scale in 2021 and beyond.
“Our members are preparing now,” said Jessica Daley, vice president of strategic supplier engagement at Premier Inc., a North Carolina-based healthcare management and group purchasing organization (GPO). “They are working on their plans, solidifying their processes. It may take a couple of months, it may take a couple of weeks … There’s a good deal of hope we will have a vaccine as early as next month, but it’s hard to say.”
The biggest hurdle will be the cold chain, which has limited capacity to transport and store the earliest vaccines due to their aggressive cold chain requirements. The issue is complicated by the sheer scale of the vaccination effort worldwide and the daunting task of prioritizing who is able to get it first, and how successive waves will play out.
“We’re going to need to vaccinate pretty much the world … [To do that] we’re going to need about three times what we have in current capacity,” in the supply chain, said Bindiya Vakil, founder and CEO of California-based supply chain risk management technology firm Resilinc, which works with manufacturers, purchasing organizations, and others in the health care supply chain. “That’s the biggest issue.”
But like Daley, Vakil says logistics and supply chain companies are already laying the groundwork for that process.
“The supply chain has to prepare months in advance. In order to meet Christmas season demand, for example, [planning] actually starts in March. There’s a lot of work that happens early on,” Vakil explained. “In order to be able to ship vaccines at scale sometime next year, we are ramping up our planning process now.”
Resilinc is working with its customers to evaluate capacity and identify bottlenecks in their supply chains. Premier is likewise working with its supply chain partners to prepare for both early and long-term vaccine distribution. Top priorities include making sure Premier’s hospital and medical center members have access to resources such as ultra-cold freezers and dry ice, key elements in transporting and storing some of the earliest vaccines, which have to maintain temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit).
“We are working with our suppliers to make sure our members have access to what they need,” Daley explained. “I think what we’ll see is the manufacturers and suppliers of the vaccines are taking a hard look at this as well—[they have] created solutions that are unique and address challenges around transportation and [so forth].”
Joseph Battoe, CEO of Chicago-based cold chain technology firm Varcode, agrees. Varcode makes smart tags that measure time and temperature, and can track and trace products throughout the supply chain, including pharmaceuticals and food and beverage products. Varcode is working with several vaccine manufacturers and distributors on customized solutions for monitoring Covid-19 vaccines; Battoe says the small company is fielding requests for big orders as vaccine makers prepare to distribute at scale.
“We consider [requests] for a million [of our products] as a big order. These guys are talking about billions,” he said.
Battoe added that he’s confident the cold chain will be able to support distribution to some of the largest urban areas first, but that the biggest challenges lie in getting vaccines to less populated, rural areas.
“I’m really optimistic about the big medical centers and the big urban areas getting this right at this point. So much time, attention, and money [has been] put into this,” he said, citing the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed effort to fast-track vaccine development and distribution. “My opinion is that the cold chain is ready to deliver massive quantities of these vaccines in large cities to big point-of-care facilities. They’ve been gearing up for this for months.”
Large urban facilities are more likely to have the proper vaccine storage requirements in place along with the critical mass of patients ready for vaccination. Daley cautions that despite those advantages, many questions still linger, including how much of the vaccine will be available right away and how the federal government will allocate vaccines to the states. But she agrees the building blocks are well on their way to being put in place. So does Vakil, who emphasizes that planning and innovation are hallmarks of the supply chain.
“Within the last six to nine months, we’ve innovated on all fronts—it’s just incredible,” she said. “We’ve identified drugs that are doing a better job, we have better testing … This is the fastest timeline to a vaccine that the world has ever seen. There are still things that could go wrong. We don’t have all the data. But where we are nine months into this, it’s phenomenal.”
Logistics and transportation companies are responding with added capacity for vaccine distribution. As one example, DHL Global Forwarding, the air and ocean freight division of transportation giant DHL, announced last week a $650,000 expansion of its life sciences and healthcare facilities in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Upgrades will include a new deep-frozen cool room, with a temperature range of -18 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the company.
Vaccines slated for release in 2021 are expected to have less stringent cold chain requirements than the first vaccines announced this month from pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and Moderna, but they will still be dependent on cold chain capabilities. Varcode’s Battoe notes that the Covid-19 vaccines continue a current trend in pharmaceuticals that has been driving demand for cold chain logistics in recent years; he says about 80% of new drugs require temperature-controlled logistics, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data.
That creates big challenges and opportunities up and down the supply chain.
“We’ve seen throughout the pandemic there have been waves of challenges … and the supply chain, everyone, is coming together and working together to find solutions,” Daley said. “Vaccination will be a unique challenge that will really stress all the parts of the supply chain and all of our collective efforts to manage it. This is definitely going to be one of the biggest challenges that our healthcare system has ever faced.”