Covid-19 vaccine: How to rise to the century’s biggest supply chain challenge
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Covid-19 vaccine: How to rise to the century’s biggest supply chain challenge

Covid-19 vaccine: How to rise to the century’s biggest supply chain challenge

From transportation and logistics to temperature-controlled storage and technology-backed innovations, here’s how countries around the world can successfully meet the immense challenges in distributing Covid-19 vaccines

Dr Shereen Nassarer Heriot-Watt University Dubai

With news of vaccines for Covid-19 now being available, there is immense excitement across the globe.

No other pandemic has wreaked havoc the way Covid-19 has in recent times. Therefore, it is but natural that countries across the world are eager to be able to acquire mass quantities of the vaccine and administer it to their populations.

However, the success of this monumental task depends heavily on the supply chain. The millions of vaccines produced will likely mean little if people do not have access to them. In turn, this could impact economic recovery and push up the number of fatalities.

As per recent estimates by DHL, nearly 200,000 pallet shipments and 15,000 flights will be required to reach global coverage over the next two years. The final distribution might require nearly 15 million cooling boxes along the way with the corresponding amounts of dry ice or cooling bricks.

Some of the challenges that the supply chain faces in delivering vaccines are as follows:

– They require to be transported at extremely low temperatures. For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has a recommended storage temperature conditions of -70°C and ±10°C for up to 10 days unopened. The more advanced vaccines being built with a new nucleic acid-based technology – mRNA – are said to require ultra-low storage temperatures during transport of up to –80 degrees Celsius.

– Most vaccines may require at least two doses, with the second one to be administered after a certain number of days, which adds to logistical complexities.

– Tracking and monitoring are critical. This will ensure that vaccines are stable and not tampered with. It is also important because people will need to return for a second dose.

Here’s how the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain can be optimised to help restore normalcy in the world.

Effective planning and collaboration is critical
As with most large-scale projects, having a solid plan is the key to success. It requires a collaborative approach among key partners in identifying the demand and the distribution requirements.

In this particular case, there are several complexities involved. Millions of doses of vaccines are required. There could be multiple manufacturers, which could mean that different products may require different storage conditions and have varying expiry dates. They may require different transportation modes. All of this whilst ensuring strict controls over temperature and handling throughout the product journey in order to maintain the integrity of the product. To be able to reach as many recipients as possible, supply chains therefore have to be efficient yet resilient. In this particular case, governments should make the most of existing distribution and storage facilities capabilities.

Effective demand planning can ensure that vaccines are delivered in a timely manner to millions. To this end, a collaborative approach should include public-private collaboration through a triadic partnership agreement between medical supply producers, health authorities/governments and logistics service providers.

Focus on cold storage
As mentioned earlier, Covid-19 vaccines need to be stored at very low temperatures and hence cold storage is an integral part of the vaccine supply chain. In general, cold chains demand greater investments in infrastructure, technology, and specialisation. It also requires staff who need to stay alert at all times and are capable of providing immediate solutions in case of temperature variations.

For the Covid-19 vaccine to be successfully transported under cold storage conditions, the main requirements are adequate cold storage infrastructure such as freezers, refrigerated warehouses and transport vehicles, and private and public refrigerated chambers and units for retailers and wholesalers to store the vaccine before it reaches the recipient.

The complex logistics activities involved in managing the vaccine cold chain along with limited government funding to support distribution will make widespread vaccination a massive challenge. Enhancing supply chain management and streamlining logistics operations will be extremely important in 2021 and beyond. Proactive decisions on logistics partners, transport modes and supply routes along with transparency on delivery times from factory to destination can help reduce the need for reactive measures.

IT-enabled supply chain visibility is a make-or-break factor
Complete visibility along the supply chain is a critical asset in achieving the world’s vaccination goals. In order to achieve real-time visibility across all supply chain activities, strong IT infrastructure and data-sharing mechanisms will play a great role.

The entire supply chain must be equipped with constant end-to-end temperature monitoring and system alerts via automated scanners to prevent damage and spoilage. It requires an effective track-and-trace system in place, that can provide details of stock that is stored or in transit, quantities delivered but not yet used and shelf life.

Visibility on vaccine flows enables reliable tracking and tracing of vaccine supplies and early detection of potential transportation bottlenecks. Here, technology will have an imperative role to achieve a smooth and safe flow across these activities to ensure that the vaccine is still effective. Although this can be seen as a challenge, it can be achieved if coordination and collaboration are established among all stakeholders which facilitates the adoption of data sharing platforms and other technologies. This in turn will allow monitoring and predicting potential risks as a robust risk mitigation strategy.

Last-mile delivery
The goal of last-mile delivery is to transport an item to its recipient in the quickest way possible and is almost always a factor that determines the success of supply chain management. For the Covid-19 vaccine, this will prove to be one of the most critical parts of the supply chain. Vaccination distribution points will be determined by how many people need to be vaccinated locally, in what order of priority and what distance people need to travel to reach health facilities where the vaccine is available.

Transportation modes are also an important consideration. Today, a bulk of the journey is being undertaken by larger trucks, with smaller trucks and carriers closing in on the last-mile connectivity and dropping off vaccines to health facilities and vaccination centres. In this scenario, demand planning becomes more important than ever before, as the healthcare centers, pharmacies and hospitals may have on-site capacity limitations and would require stock to be replenished every few days.

Last-mile delivery vehicles should have cold chain storage facilities and also ideally manage both outbound fulfilment and returns. This requires improving the existing transportation infrastructure significantly to comply with the storage temperature requirements that would enable vaccine access to 70 per cent (i.e. 5 billion in 60 countries) of the world’s population. As with the rest of the world’s population that resides in places with poor transportation and cold chain infrastructure, it could be incredibly difficult to distribute the vaccine. Therefore, specialised and innovative transportation modes should be considered to reduce vaccine-access disparity in such places.

The supply chain, as its name suggests, is only as strong as its weakest link. The success or failure of several businesses has often depended on how resilient the supply chain is, and in the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, it is no different.

Dr Shereen Nassar is the Global Director of Logistics Studies and the Director of the MSc Logistics and Supply Chain Management programme at Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University Dubai. For more information on Heriot-Watt University Dubai’s MSc Logistics and Supply Chain Management programme, visit

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