Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine across the globe will not come without challenges. It is estimated that 10 billion vaccine doses will need to be delivered to all corners of the world within two years. It is also estimated that there will be a need for 15 million deliveries in cooling boxes, 200,000 movements by pallet shippers and 15,000 flights across the various supply chain setups.
On February 4th I had the opportunity to attend Alcott Global’s Makers & Movers event on Global Access and Distribution COVID-19 Vaccine, where a group of panelists discussed the challenges and solutions to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months. The panels ranged from the challenges of bringing the vaccine to Asia and rural areas, to transportation and communication.
One way to look at the challenges that global vaccine distribution is currently facing was presented in a panel which included representatives of Delta Cargo, DHL, World Economic Forum & WHO, and IATA. It was said that the distinctive feature of vaccine distribution is the scale and intensity, as well as differing temperature requirements. This is certainly true, since there have not been many incidences in the past (if none at all), where literally everyone on the world was at the end of a supply chain and where cold chain requirements were this extreme.
In order to give our readers a better overview on how the experts think we can solve challenges of gargantuan proportions, I have divided the main challenges into the following categories of infrastructure, production (delays) and delivery.
Experts on the panel said that 12-15 billion vaccines will be moved around the world, and the biggest challenge within this endeavor is rural areas. Poor infrastructure in less-developed countries, especially in Asia and Africa, coupled with the importance of having the ability to import the vaccine safely and on time to remote areas will become an important requirement in supply chain management. Oftentimes communities in rural areas do not have good quality roads, have limited access to good healthcare and no electricity to power the freezers for the vaccine. With continuous advancements in drone technology and the improvement and increased adoption of advanced technologies, there are certainly solutions available, but implementing these short-term and on a broad scale is probably unlikely.
As said before, ensuring the vaccines are kept at the required temperatures in intense heat conditions is of great importance. If a vaccine is not kept at the required temperature, it cannot be used after a certain period. The experts in the conference suspected that the infrastructure especially in the Southern Hemisphere is generally not built or designed to keep the vaccine at the required temperature. One of many solutions in this case could be dry ice as Larry St. Onge, President of Life Sciences & Healthcare at DHL suggested. But the general scope of the problem leads to a very much needed high level of collaboration between all included supply chain players to ensure the vaccines are delivered on time and still in their appropriate packaging or required temperatures.
The biggest issue being faced in Africa is that the vaccine will probably not reach its population until as late as 2024. The reason may be less an infrastructure than a budget problem, calling for early and massive investments by richer countries. If the vaccine is not equally distributed worldwide, it will be a huge impact to the economy in Africa, said Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO of Amref Health Africa. The resulting instability of countries could lead to a new geopolitical threat for other regions as well. Also the shortage of vaccine doses may be used for political gain, such as using the Coronavirus crisis as part of election campaigns to gain more votes and thus weakening opposition parties or democratic development in general.
According to Michael Culme Seymour, Advisor at WHO and the World Economic Forum, there are currently 60% of shortages compared to orders in the EU due to production delays. These shortages are because of delays in shipments of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The EU had hoped that as soon as approval was given, delivery would start straight away, but this has not been the case. Both the EU and AstraZeneca have vowed to work together to resolve the problems.
A major byproduct of the pandemic’s effect on manufacturing has been disruption to production and supply chains, as goods and commodities in the upstream supply chain have been produced in much lower quantities, or sometimes not at all, in the months since the virus began to spread last year.
Vaccine distribution can be highly influenced by politics, hence it was a common opinion at the conference that it is important to build up local production. A good example is the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been the center of a row with the EU over supplies, after a partner plant in Belgium reportedly fell behind on its targets to make the vaccine on their behalf. The vast majority of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be manufactured in the UK, with production sites in England and Wales, and parts of the Pfizer vaccine are being made in England too.
In comparison to other parts of the world, distribution of the vaccine is different in Asia because of its infrastructure and different last-mile delivery, said Mirko Senatore, Head of Global Supply Chain EECA at Pfizer. This is because of more rural, less-developed and less-populated areas, plus warmer climates in comparison to Europe. Even in rural areas of Australia and New Zealand, which are normally not known for logistics difficulties, made use of the military to provide last-mile delivery of the vaccine. Even in the UK, the Armed Forces have been one part of their last-mile delivery.
In a panel on the lessons being learned from transporting the COVID-19 vaccine, the Vice President of Delta Cargo Rob Walpole, Vice President of Life Sciences & Healthcare Asia Pacific at DHL Leonora Lim, Advisor at World Economic Forum & WHO Michael Culme-Seymour, and the Head of Special Cargo at IATA Andrea Gruber highlighted that it is important that businesses have the ability to remain flexible in order to work together to deliver the vaccines.
Logistics capacity is manageable, but ocean freight is still a concern due to container shortages, for example. People are switching to air freight since the vaccine is low volume cargo and of great importance, but this may lead to issues later on. One of the concerns raised is that it might come down to prioritizing cargo over other less important cargo.
Head of Healthcare at Emerson, Chris Ashbaugh, added that there are gaps at a global scale which could be as much as 50% due to broken cold chain processes. The reason for these gaps is that refrigerators could be either too hot or cold for safe vaccine storage, as well as vaccines being left out of the refrigerator for too long. He says this could be solved with a midterm solution of working together with business leaders and organizations to develop platforms, which will also help to solve future world problems such as another pandemic. “We can create a vaccine in 12 months, which shows research and data can be used to develop solutions.” says Ashbaugh. The problems that are solved today will help solve problems with vaccines in the future.
In a panel between Maersk, UN/CEFACT and PSA International, it was noted that the entire vaccine movement will be a very long supply chain. How do we get people along the supply chain to collaborate? A shared vision and being clear about those shared values is needed. The new normal probably won’t go back to the way it was, and we have a chance to reset the world and be more sustainable. It is very important that the community comes together for open sharing and communications.
This overview is an insight into the key topics that were discussed during this month’s event Makers & Movers Global Access & Distribution of the COVID-19 Vaccine. While the pandemic is still far from over, 2021 is the year of optimism. What we learn from the pandemic and the steps we choose to take now will help us in the future and prepare us with tackling other virus outbreaks.
It was a great opportunity to be invited to Alcott Global’s event and I came away from it feeling more informed about distribution challenges during the pandemic. It was very interesting to learn more about the very real and difficult challenges we may face in our pursuit to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine across the world.
The All Things Supply Chain Blog is a Media Partner of the Makers & Movers Global Access & Distribution of the COVID-19 Vaccine event.