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The COVID-19 Vaccine Requires an Efficient Supply Chain

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

The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed testing facilities and hospitals, with 32 states reporting a rise in cases last week. COVID-19 is now the number one cause of deaths in the United States with over 11,820 deaths reported in early December.

Health officials have focused their efforts on encouraging social distancing, washing one’s hands and wearing a face mask. Unfortunately, COVID-19 infection rates and deaths continue to rise.

Flattening the Curve

Flattening the curve has shifted from preventative measures to vaccinations as many Americans ignore CDC recommendations and plan holiday trips at the end of the month. President-elect Biden has stated that he does not plan to enforce a nationwide mandate for masks or to take the vaccine. So the Advertising Council is expected to use social media, celebrities, and past U.S. presidents to encourage the 40% of the U.S. population that says they are not convinced of the need to take the vaccine.

How Many Vaccine Doses Are Needed?

Emergency authorization for vaccine administration is expected from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. this month. Only pieces of the distribution plan have been released, including who will receive the vaccine first, such as front-line health care workers and at-risk populations. These two categories are estimated to be 24 million people across every county in the United States.

In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Operation Warp Speed have provided lower estimates of the number of coronavirus vaccine doses that are needed. Two vaccinations are required per person, so the 40 million doses initially produced will fall short of the public need and will only provide relief to 20 million people.

The Vaccine’s Distribution Must Include Efficient Supply Chain Management

While vaccine distribution and administration mark an eventual end of the pandemic, how the vaccine will be distributed is a matter of supply chain management, which has yet to be disclosed. Some key supply chain management concepts to consider include:

  1. Labor and material, which by definition describe direct costs may be offset by indirect costs when attempts are made to distribute the vaccine.
  2. Indirect costs are defined as overhead or utility costs and can affect the distribution of the vaccine. Keeping vaccines at -94 degrees Fahrenheit requires special freezers for vaccine storage. These freezers can cost up to $21,000 each, which is an unforeseen cost that many health centers cannot afford.
  3. Benchmarking — comparing one’s business to other similar companies — will be crucial with the distribution. Benchmarking focuses on quality, value and the time needed to distribute a product. For example, Russia has begun distributing their coronavirus vaccine, so observing best practices within Russia can provide innovative and inspiring solutions for U.S. coronavirus vaccine distributors.
  4. Supply chain management needs to focus on lean objectives, which means devoting energy to those activities that will streamline the distribution process. This work includes streamlining warehousing and materials handling to process each day’s orders by the end of the same day.
  5. A circular economy approach to the supply chain will emphasize how to avoid waste by recycling, reusing, and reselling distribution items and packaging needed to administer the vaccine. Medical waste workers should be included in every state’s distribution plan to manage the medical waste generated by the vaccine’s administration.

Efficient and effective vaccine distribution means more than simply developing a lifesaving vaccine. Remaining aware of how each step in the supply chain affects vaccine distribution is crucial to ensure success. With an efficient, well-thought-out supply chain and an effective coronavirus vaccine, we will move much closer to the end of the pandemic.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has over 25 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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