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COVID vaccine: the biggest supply chain challenge in modern history?

The frantic race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine is on. From London to East Geelong, more than 16 different candidate vaccines exist worldwide, with at least 31 currently in clinical trial. Melanie Stark sits down with supply chain’s best and brightest to discover the logistical challenge ahead.

Typically, a slow and detailed endeavour, vaccines take years of research and testing before reaching a clinic. Clinical development of a vaccine is a three-phase process. It starts with small group of people receiving the trial vaccine in phase one, to expanding safety trials in phase two, and large-scale efficacy testing in phase three.

As COVID-19 continues to take the lives of thousands of people worldwide, destroying the global economy in its wake, the world’s most prominent researchers and scientists are working day and night to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

At the time of writing, The New York Times Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker details 135 preclinical trials, with 19 in phase one, 12 in phase two, eight in phase three and two approved for early or limited use.

One of the frontrunners in the race is the Oxford University collaboration with AstraZeneca, with the team predicting the vaccine could be available this year or early 2021. Closer to home the University of Queensland’s project with the Doherty Institute and CSIRO is currently in phase one testing.

With the Oxford team leading the way, at present the Australian Government has signed a letter of intent to secure 25 million doses of the vaccine. The government and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca are in agreement that Australia would manufacture the vaccine, most likely at the CSL laboratories in Melbourne. Details around distribution and timing are yet to be finalised, but the wheels are in motion.

L to R: Andrew Coldrey, Vice President – Oceania at C.H. Robinson; Tim Edwards, National Director at Colliers International; Dr Hermione Parsons, Industry Professor and founding Director of Deakin University’s Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics; Archival Garcia, VP Sales APAC at Microlistics and Leonora Lim, Vice President, Life Sciences and Healthcare – Asia Pacific at DHL.

As we move closer to a vaccine becoming a reality, the logistics and supply chain world is preparing for the challenge of a lifetime in ensuring the safe, timely and efficient global distribution of the vaccine.

“At the heart of supply chain is marrying supply and demand. We have to forecast what is to come, the demand, the supply and how you bring that all together,” Dr Hermione Parsons, Industry Professor and founding Director of Deakin University’s Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics says.

For Hermione, the vaccine supply chain is the next big challenge in the pandemic. “We need to approach this as the complex problem solvers that we are. It’s about forecasting and working out a number of different scenarios so when it becomes a reality we can respond quickly and intelligently and work together to bring this important vaccine to everyone,” she says.

The distribution of a vaccine will require a concentrated global supply chain effort with rigorous forward planning, Andrew Coldrey, Vice President Oceania at C.H. Robinson says. “All 190 countries will need this vaccine pretty much at once. This is a huge task,” he says.

Life-saving logistics

Without even thinking about the logistical challenge of getting a vaccine dose to the world’s seven billion people, vaccines by their very nature present a number of complexities when it comes to freight.

“Vaccines are high value, highly sensitive, and temperature-controlled items. Transporting vaccines (or any temperature-controlled product for that matter) require a highly coordinated approach, backed by trained people and certified infrastructure. This includes intimate knowledge of the minute details such as packaging, packing, storing, air and land routing, timing, carrier selection, etc.,” Leonora Lim, Vice President, Life Sciences and Healthcare – Asia Pacific at DHL says.

Furthermore, the products have a use-by date and associated quality controlled measures that need to be adhered to, says Tim Edwards, National Director – Victoria at Colliers International says.

“Vaccines are very susceptible to fluctuations in temperature differentials, exposure to UV light and contaminants. They generally require stable and controlled processes across transportation, storage and distribution, as per most pharmaceutical products. This will be challenging to achieve globally across existing infrastructure,” he says.

Depending on the characteristics of the vaccine, supply chain strategies may need to also account for associated equipment to administer the vaccine. The government is already working on this, and recently signed a $24.7 million contract with Becton Dickinson to supply 100 million syringes and needles that will be required in administering the vaccine.

According to Archival Garcia, VP Sales APAC at Microlistics, while a complex task lies ahead, it does not necessarily exceed those felt in cold storage or food and beverage distribution.

“Key factors will include security and verification, refrigeration and monitoring, tracking and traceability at the batch and lot level, and by user and machine involved in handling the goods, all the way to the medical practitioner administering the vaccine,” Archival explains.

Capacity crunch

According to Deakin University’s Hermione, it’s important to ask what the collapse of the aviation industry will mean in the planning of the worldwide distribution of a vaccine. “When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Australia’s air freight capacity collapsed by 92 per cent. We are an island, so what does that mean for access to high volumes of this time-sensitive vaccine and associated equipment?”

C.H. Robinson’s Andrew has similar concerns. “To fix the pandemic, we need to distribute a vaccine. But one of the consequences of the pandemic is that airlines have significantly reduced capacity, we need to get our head around this in any strategy or planning we develop,” he says.

We’ve seen industry adapt to ensure that Australians continue to have access to essentials such as PPE, masks and medical supplies.
The International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) has been established by the government to keep high-value, time sensitive and perishable goods and vital imports, such as medical supplies and other essential items, flowing as air freight capacity is down. Similarly, C.H. Robinson has worked tirelessly to ensure Australians have a sufficient supply of PPE throughout the pandemic.

“This not only shows the incredible complexity of the supply chain. But also shows the capabilities of the people who work in this industry in Australia. They are flexible and agile and do whatever needs to be done to get the right product, to the right person at the right time and have been doing a phenomenal job. But the pandemic has introduced levels of complexity previously unknown, requiring heightened skills and capability.  The complexity in marrying supply and demand for the vaccine cannot be underestimated,” Hermione says.

Some modelling has already been carried out with regards to capacity around the distribution. “We have seen modelling that suggests around 1,000 charter flights to get the vaccine to everyone. But that’s based on a person only needing one dose. At this stage we have no idea if multiple doses will be needed, so it’s hard to know what kind of capacity we are looking at,” Andrew says.

Integrity and security

Issues around authenticity, security, track and trace now play a significant role in the supply chain and a COVID-19 vaccine will accelerate these priorities. “Pharmaceutical supply chains are some of the most secure and advanced in the Western world,” Hermione says.

“Detailed real-time visibility and track and traceability for health authorities will be required to ensure the optimal rollout of the vaccine across the population. A fully integrated supply chain will help to minimise any loss or wastage, to maintain the ability to undertake recalls or notifications where any issues with the quality of particular batches may be discovered,” Microlistics’ Archival says.

Equally critical is the ability to ensure that every step of the cold chain transportation process can be tracked so that data is fed back on stability of storage during the journey of the vaccine. “Sensors that provide the data at the cargo-level will help immensely in ensuring the integrity is not compromised,” DHL’s Leonora says.

All these issues coupled with the highest ever demand the pharmaceutical industry has faced will cause a very complex situation.

“This is very different to SARS, MERS or Ebola. This is a pandemic and every single person needs to be vaccinated. This level of demand is something the pharmaceutical industry will never have experienced before,” Hermione says.

A coordinated effort for humanity  

The worldwide delivery of a vaccine will require a strong policy lead and industry will need to collaborate across sectors and borders.

“This will require an in-depth plan between government and the logistics industry. The value of these vaccines, and not just the dollar value but what they will mean for society and the economy, will require a coordinated effort,” C.H. Robinson’s Andrew says.

A lot of work will need to be done determining the policy of who receives the vaccine first and how to create the most efficient way of distributing it to all, Hermione says.

“Target populations are likely to include at-risk population groups such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions and essential workers such as healthcare practitioners, food, transport and logistics workers,” Archival says.

Global logistics giant DHL is actively working with manufacturers, governments and NGOs in this context already. “There are several opportunities for collaboration around charters or humanitarian flights, especially to access countries that may be in lockdown, product import approvals, green lane customs clearance or coordination to deliver into remote areas,” Leonora says.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said “whoever finds this vaccine, must share it” and he consequently pledged that if Australia finds it, it will be shared.

The distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine is a similar moral endeavour and one that the supply chain will play a huge role in. “This is so much bigger than one logistics provider, it’s about everyone working together to ensure that every single person gets access to this critical vaccine,” Andrew concludes.

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