Vaccine Distribution Supply Chain Demonstrates Continued Need for Government Innovation

After a year of trials and tribulations as Americans have grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic,  the development and approval of vaccines have provided fresh confidence and represent the first step in returning back to “normal.” We now have two vaccines approved and in distribution and the vaccination of the highest priority populations has begun.

“Operation Warp Speed” and vaccine distribution is just the latest in a series of opportunities for the government to capitalize on innovative models and approaches to ensure efficient delivery. Particularly when dealing with something as fragile as these vaccines, this is more important than ever. COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated deficiencies in the U.S. supply chain, including reports that only a small percentage of antibody drug doses have actually been utilized. Additionally, distribution will be more challenging as more individuals become eligible for the vaccine and the number of vaccine doses available increase. 

Take the work currently being done by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which is tasked with distributing the vaccine to Department of Defense (DOD) employees outside the United States, including in the deployed U.S. Navy fleet. The agency built upon its existing infrastructure to quickly and efficiently accommodate the increased needs brought about by the vaccine and the urgency driven by the pandemic.

‘“The agency has increased refrigerated storage space and can maintain almost 19 million doses of the 2-to-8-degree Celsius vaccine and 4.6 million of the minus 20-degree Celsius vaccine ahead of shipping products to customers. The agency hasn’t been asked to distribute the minus 80-degree Celsius vaccine but has developed initial plans to provide support if necessary, Bostick added.

DLA Distribution manages six U.S.-based and four overseas centers capable of handling cold-chain items and began training additional employees in cold-chain management processes in June, Bob Garrettson of DLA Distribution’s special commodities team said.

‘We’ve been involved in very detailed, intense planning with DHA and other key players to make sure there’s a coordinated response that gets the vaccine exactly where it’s needed, and we have contingency plans in place in case they’re needed,’ he said.” READ MORE.

The accelerated nature of the vaccine and its distribution has put additional strain on government agencies at both the state and federal levels as they work through logistical issues and comply with public health and safety guidelines. States have drafted vaccine distribution plans laying out the basics, but implementing these plans, particularly with limited supplies and ongoing supply chain issues, is easier said than done. 

How can this be accomplished across other government agencies?

  1. Ensure there is proper transparency and visibility within the supply chain. This means ensuring that all stakeholders have access to data on vaccine supply, as well as other items that are crucial in vaccine distribution (i.e. PPE, syringes, etc.). A full picture of what they supply chain looks like at any given time will make distribution a much smoother process, and give everyone insight into what move(s) is needed next.
  2. Without coordination, a “full picture” by itself will not be enough. Coordination among all partners (federal, state, local, healthcare, data collection, contact tracers, etc.) is essential in making sure that distribution is handled according to the prescribed requirements from the manufacturer and the government. 
  3. Ensure proper communication and education is available to the American people about how and where they can access the vaccine. Communication between healthcare providers, pharmacists and all levels of government will be necessary to best communicate how and where Americans can obtain their vaccine doses to ensure all Americans can receive the vaccine.

It’s important that government at all levels take a modern approach to the massive and complex distribution and supply chain challenges facing the nation as we take these first steps to put the pandemic’s devastating impact behind us. This includes ensuring that we capitalize on best-of-breed commercial capabilities and enter into robust partnerships with private sector partners to most efficiently distribute the vaccine – whether that be healthcare providers, hospitals, or companies that have expertise in data collection, data sharing, and the actual disbursement of materiel. While there is much more work to be done, DLA is a prime example of a federal agency that is working to modernize and update its existing systems as it works to efficiently distribute the vaccine overseas – an even more daunting task than shipping it and managing the distribution process domestically.

The recommendations above are also essential to what is perhaps most important in handling this crisis: trust and faith in the process. The government’s handling of the vaccine distribution has the ability to either rebuild or shake the confidence of the American people. Indeed, given the suffering and challenges of the last year, there is a palpable need to re-establish trust in every aspect of the process– from manufacturing, to distribution; from the government to commercial partnerships. A properly functioning, well communicated and transparent modern supply chain will make or break the success of vaccine distribution and with it, public faith in the government.