Depending who you listen to we could have a Covid vaccine in 30 days or 30 weeks. It’s unclear at this point when we will see a Covid vaccine. The rush to get it to market is also raising questions on effectiveness. The logistical challenge to distribute billions of doses worldwide will require a massive effort by both commercial and government logistical support personnel. Let’s take a look at how it might work.
The Hurdles Will Be Many
The first hurdle right out of the gate is the requirement that any potential vaccine will require temperature specific storage in transit and warehouse. Protective temperature ranges could be as low as -18 degrees Celsius. While health authorities, producers and logistics providers would strongly prefer to begin large-scale transport and distribution under the less stringent conditions, one of the most promising vaccines that could be produced at high capacity is likely to require such extreme care designed to cater to a much lower number of units than billions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. The actual transport of these vaccines will also pose a huge challenge. Due to their urgency, it is probable that at least for longer distances air freight will be needed. If we want to achieve global coverage over the next two years, that means some 200,000 pallet shipments and 15,000 flights. In the final distribution we could potentially require nearly 15 million cooling boxes, with the corresponding amounts of cooling bricks or dry ice. Limited resources will certainly have an impact on timely distribution certainly to some more remote areas.
Geography will be a defining factor in how quickly and efficiently vaccines can be distributed, and here temperature requirements are likely to be the main challenge. If vaccines need to be distributed under the more stringent scenario, especially regions with a particularly warm climate and those with limited cold-chain logistics infrastructure will pose a huge challenge. This is the case in large parts of Africa, South America and Asia. In other words, if the vaccine does need this extreme care, we are currently only able to easily reach 2.5 billion of the world’s population.
Potentially, some of these challenges can be lessened if, in the end, the vaccines that go into mass production do not need such stringent care, but even then the logistical effort will be extraordinary.
It Will Require a Worldwide Collaboration
Dosing 330 million Americans with COVID-19 vaccines is no small feat, especially if it will require two doses per patient. Add to that all the medical supplies and medical equipment that will be required, and it is a massive venture. For example, the massive vaccination effort will require syringes, vials, stoppers and other materials. Given the experience earlier this year with supply chain and logistical challenges involving PPE, medical supplies and medical equipment such as ventilators, it would seem that the public would have a valid reason to be concerned.
For many years, drug manufacturers have depended on a network of hundreds of suppliers worldwide to produce, package and deliver pharmaceutical products. To accomplish this, multiple teams were needed to manage the many international supplier sites. This work is labor-intensive, inefficient and expensive. One challenge in coordinating all this effort is a lack of uniform visibility for all supply chain and logistics partners working hard to bring safe and effective vaccines and the other necessities from the point of manufacture to the point of administration to the patient. In addition, shippers continue to struggle with cumbersome documentation and other paperwork that can slow down the transport of goods need to produce and then move vaccines expeditiously from point-to-point.
As the global economy has slowed, so has the need for freight shipment. The entire global supply chain has slowed down. Because there has been less demand to move goods, capacity on container ships and cargo aircraft has been shrinking steadily. It is anticipated that commercial flights will drive up the cost of transportation; the airline industry already is experiencing chaotic conditions.
After experts with Emirates SkyCargo pharmaceutical division estimated that a single Boeing Co. 777 freighter can carry 1 million individual doses of vaccine, the company began to free up air freight capacity. Emirates SkyCargo has been working on retrofitting idled passenger planes to carry a wide variety of products including medical supplies and has been using 70 passenger 777 planes to move cargo.
We’re All in This Together
This pandemic transcends political affiliations, social status and, in most cases, wealth. The virus itself appears to have no clear lethality. Some people contract the virus and are mostly asymptomatic. Others die in a few days. The world has learned a lot of lessons over the past few months of this health crisis. One of them is that sufficient planning and solid partnerships make a huge difference when it comes to meeting the surge in demand for medical supplies and ensuring their effective distribution. A network with both public-private and government-to-government partnerships will be essential going forward. Every one of us has an interest in ending this pandemic as quickly as possible. If there has ever been a time for mutual concern for mankind this may be it.
Stay Safe Everyone.
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