Several factors will act as an impediment to the smooth and quick distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine across the nation. Let's explore some of these factors and what is being done about those.
The US has been at the forefront in the race to develop a vaccine, ever since the outbreak went international in January 2021. Though it was a complex new strain, researchers, scientists, and pharma experts came together to come up with a solution to the pandemic that spread like wildfire across continents.
Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are the two names that lead the race and have come up with vaccines that seem highly effective against the novel coronavirus strain. But the journey is only half complete till now. There is still the matter of getting these vaccine doses out to reach the people who actually need them. And what we have seen till now is that the supply chain has come across as the primary factor in how soon the people will be able to access the vaccine doses. So we can safely say that the doses won't be successful unless enough people have been administered the vaccine and have brought down the number of cases across the US.
And this is where the entire nation's logistical and supply chain ecosystem will be under tremendous pressure.
What are the key challenges?
Robin Townley leads special-projects logistics for A.P. Moller-Maersk, a supply chain logistics company. He aptly sums up the present scenario when he says, "The vaccine race now is not a race out of the lab. It's a race to the patient."
Let's look at some of the key challenges that will determine how quickly the population's largest chunk gain access to the vaccine.
1 – Refrigeration and accessories challenges
According to Jason Schwartz, a Yale vaccination policy researcher, even if the vaccine is half as effective as touted, it can still be useful if it were distributed quickly to the people. He equates the logistical issues around making the vaccine available, as complex as the R&D and scientific issues behind creating the vaccine.
The first issue we see is the need for ultra-low temperature freezers of the doses over a period of time. Refrigerated and freezer trucks, aircraft, and rail carriers that can transport such goods at such extremely low temperatures aren't very common. The large scale demand will further pressurize the refrigerator makers to ramp up operations at an unprecedented scale. Additionally, they will then demand the highest volume of components from parts makers. This will be necessary to maintain an optimal inventory level to keep the pipeline moving round the clock.
It is not just the storage requirement that poses a hurdle. There will be an unprecedented demand for other components like syringes, vials, swabs, gloves, and masks. While many have already started putting systems, equipment, and protocols in place to meet the huge surge, there still isn't enough of these components to ensure widespread administration of the doses in large numbers. Of course, while they are picking up a rapid pace in getting the demand met, only time will tell how effective they can be over the long term.
2 – The matter of transparency and trust
This is another area that needs significant buy-in. Most people still don't trust the efficacy of the vaccines. The potential risks and side effects from the doses further exacerbate the problem. Even the frontline workers who are supposedly the first ones to receive this lifeline of vaccine doses have a certain degree of distrust. A similar concern was voiced by Dr. Michael Osterholm, a Minnesota epidemiologist.
While Moderna and Pfizer have been submitting research materials to the federal authorities, there is still more to be done. Independent and unbiased peer-led scientific reviews of the vaccines will need to come out in bigger numbers. As the vaccines continue spreading among the public, they will need to know how effective it is performing at scale at the grassroots level.
Such a transparent review of the vaccines will go a long way in securing people's trust in getting the shots.
3 – Chaos around Dosing
Another problem is that many states don't know how much the federal government will allocate it. Hence even the first phase of inoculating the frontline workers and senior citizens seems to be in chaos currently.
As a result, the distribution centers won't know how many doses to roll out in the first shot, and how many in the booster shots due 3-4 weeks after the first shot is provided.
4 - Special focus on the last mile delivery
These were some of the issues that will impact the successful and timely distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines to people. However, these factors will look more pronounced when they reach the last mile. This last mile can be termed as the last leg of the vaccine's journey from the distribution centers to clinics and finally to patients. The magnitude of the hurdles present at this stage is truly astounding.
Right now, Pfizer itself has presented a solution in the form of a container shaped like a pizza box. It can store the vaccine in the short term. But last-mile terms dictate that dry ice availability in the rural areas can impact the viability of the doses by the time it reaches the people.
To sign off
These were some of the logistical challenges that can impact the working of the supply chain ecosystem in the US as it rolls out large scale distribution of the doses in different areas of the country.