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Distributing a COVID-19 Vaccine Is More Complicated Than You Think

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University

As the world awaits the approval of the first coronavirus vaccine, there are ethical considerations that have yet to be addressed. Who gets the vaccine first? Should the goal be the quantity of lives saved or the number of years saved? And will wealthy countries be at an advantage to hire people to administer the vaccine in large quantities?

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While the World Health Organization supports distributing the vaccine according to need, the United States does not subscribe to this philosophy. As a result, the concern here is whether people who need it will receive it.

The most overlooked ethical consideration is not distributing vaccines at cost, but the very essence of distribution itself. Ethics requires a plan for distribution to all individuals.

Americans Have Yet to Grasp What It Means to Move Goods via a Distributed System

As a professor of transportation and logistics, I am well aware that the ethical distribution of a vaccine is truly fascinating because the average American has yet to grasp what it means to move goods via a distributed system.

Have you ever wondered how a banana makes it to your home, even though no bananas are grown in your region? Or how seasonal items arrive in stores 60 days before the holiday? From widgets to food, to an entire vehicle, most items are not locally grown or manufactured. Instead, we rely on a system to transport goods from the grower or builder to the buyer, with a few intermediary steps (such as warehousing).

One of the most common distribution systems is the airline industry. This network is based on supply and demand, and it can be affected by operability (or inoperability) of the planes, environment/weather hazards and user preference.

If you’re using a computer, you’re using a distributed system. By itself, a computer can collate and utilize an array of features, including software and hardware already built into the system.

However, once connected a computer can contribute to an overall network. This connectivity allows multiple computers to both access and share information instantaneously. As a result, communication is faster, updates are timely and information is tracked rapidly.

Distribution Systems Must Be Robust, Scalable and Complex

This connectivity as goods and services are distributed is defined as a transportation-based distribution system. Distribution systems are defined as “a critical practice that applies knowledge of process, skills, tools, deliverables, and techniques to project activities to ensure a solid path to project success by meeting goals and requirements.”

Both forward and reverse logistics include the use of distribution systems. It’s a balancing act among customer service, price and profit. It’s important to define logistics, which is the methodical planning and distribution systems, one of many modes of moving goods.

Simply put, a distributive system moves goods from a centralized source to multiple end destinations using one or more modes of transportation. The size, logistics and overall success of a distribution system can be attributed to three factors:

  1. Robust: The system is adaptable, agile, and adjustable, and it can withstand failures.
  2. Scalable: The system can be expanded or contracted based on user needs.
  3. Complex: The system can utilize multiple users and multiple forms of transportation to distribute resources.

Ethical Vaccine Considerations Must Include Advanced Distributions

Now, apply this concept of a distribution system to a vaccine. First, you need a laboratory to create the vaccine and a pharmaceutical company to manufacture it. Second, you need a means to transport the vaccine to the destination, and third, the vaccine needs to be properly stored prior to use.

Time, energy and resources are contributors to a successful distribution system, but a systematic methodology is needed to ensure the vaccine is distributed accurately. Vaccine distribution must be scalable and applied to any movement from 10 vials to 1 million vials.

In addition, most vaccines require temperature-controlled shipping conditions, so refrigerated containers are essential for safe transport. Environmental factors can have an effect not only on the vaccine, but on the intermodal method of distribution.

Warehousing is another crucial step in the distribution process. A vial can remain at an intermediary location for up to six months, depending on the lifecycle of the vaccine.

A National Vaccine Network Will Only Be Successful If the Distribution System Has the Right Qualities

However, increased complexity can be the pitfall of reliability and ultimately profitability, especially if the distributor is selling the vaccine at cost. As a result, a national vaccine network will be successful only if the distribution system has proper engineering, information, communication and networking.

Writing in Politico, Rachel Roubein and Dan Goldberg note that many of these distribution aspects of a coronavirus vaccine have yet to be discussed. The CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations enumerates the ancillary supplies needed – gloves, bandages and needle disposal containers, among others – and how they are to be handled and distributed. Their requirement adds an additional stream of supplies needed to administer the vaccine.

However, if the states are tasked with leading the distribution of the vaccine, we will have a multitude of challenges that will delay delivery and administering of the vaccine. That is why we must have only one robust national system.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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