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COVID-19 vaccine delivery – overcoming the supply chain challenges

COVID-19 has impacted every country around the world since its arrival in late 2019, either directly or indirectly due to its effect on the global economy.

However, things are looking up. By the end of 2021, the WHO plans to deliver over 2 billion doses of a Coronavirus vaccine.

The scientific research community is making strong ground. As of 22nd July, there are 24 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation, some of which have already entered the final phase of clinical trials.

But this is an ambitious timeline and presents huge challenges for pharmaceutical supply chains that need to be ready. Underinvestment and mounting pressure from confounding stress factors have left the pharma supply chain in a substandard condition.

Faced with the task of delivering a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to billions of people in the next 18 months, the time to address these shortfalls has come. This could be the tipping point we’ve been waiting for to kick start the next generation pharma supply chain.

What are the supply chain challenges for delivering a vaccine?

Delivering a new vaccine for COVID-19 worldwide will be one of the greatest challenges faced by modern pharma. The difficulties are intensified by pre-existing shortcomings in the supply chain.

Despite linking the laboratory to the marketplace, the supply chain hasn’t received the same focus and investment given to the discovery, development and marketing of pharma products. And it’s starting to show.

Manufacturing capacity

Upscaling manufacturing capacity has been a priority for many years as part of pandemic preparedness. Additional emergency funding packages have also been made available to further bolster pharma manufacturing capacity, in anticipation of an approved vaccine.

However, without knowing which will be approved (or approved first) it’s an educated guess at best. The manufacturing facilities needed will be dependent on the kind of vaccine developed and while there are clear frontrunners, we can’t be certain who will be first across the line.

Some governments have already started to “pre-order” quantities of different vaccines in phase 3 clinical trials. A further step could be pre-agreeing prices to give greater certainty to manufacturers.

The cold chain

Vaccines usually need to be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius from manufacture to administration; cold chain logistics are therefore key.

A cold chain undergoes end-to-end temperature control through transit and thanks to a new class of pharmaceuticals – biologics – the cold chain has become more widespread and smarter. But there’s still a long way to go.

Cold chain logistics are particularly difficult in warmer climates and more remote places. Recently we’ve seen exciting innovation in this area, with some start-ups delivering temperature-controlled drugs via drones, allowing them to reach remote communities within just a few hours. We’ll likely see further innovation in this area as the COVID-19 vaccine travels to all corners of the world.

A hybrid strategy

Historically, pharma companies have relied on a network of hundreds of international suppliers to manufacture, package and deliver different products. This means multiple teams to be managing multiple international supplier sites which can be overly complex, largely inefficient and very expensive.

A pragmatic solution would be bringing it “under one roof”, merging the best of manufacturing, design and innovation, supply chain networking and infrastructure. Doing so would speed up the process of manufacturing and shipping doses and reduce the margin for error.

Pre-filled syringes would be the preferred option for primary packaging, allowing clinicians to directly administer the vaccine to patients and to protect its contents from contamination and misuse.

However, primary and secondary packaging structures must be extensively tested together to check there are no adverse effects on efficacy, durability or shelf life.

Criminal activity

It’s an unfortunate fact that medicine is now the world’s largest fraud market, worth over $200 billion per year. Due to the widespread demand for a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s likely criminals will attempt to capitalise. We’ve already seen efforts to sell fake testing kits and PPE.

A crucial part of delivering a safe and effective vaccine will be ensuring falsified and counterfeit versions are not in distribution. The use of intelligent packaging and supply chain tracking software can help here.

Smart tracking systems, built into primary and secondary packaging, can manage and record activities across the supply chain in real-time, giving valuable information about shipments. The geographical location of a product and the route it took can all be captured and stored, revealing any unauthorised movements or interventions.

Education and outreach

Vaccines are not compulsory; their success lies with individuals. Persuasive online conspiracy theories are fuelling the so-called “anti-vaxx” movement which could result in limited take-up when a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

It’s currently estimated in Britain, up to a third of people are either unsure about or would refuse a vaccine, rising to up to half of people in America.

Health education and outreach to close the knowledge gap will be an important step, targeted at both grassroots and top-line audiences. Public health officials and clinicians must listen and understand the specific concerns individuals and groups have and respond in a targeted way to change their opinions and dispel misinformation.

A challenging path ahead

The pressure on supply chain networks to deliver a safe and effective vaccine is immense and will continue to grow. And at the same time, the pharmaceutical must maintain and strengthen supply chains for existing treatments and services.

The benefits of a modern pharma supply chain that’s fit for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s will long outlive the COVID-19 pandemic, delivering more effective and safer medicines the entire world can access and afford.

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