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Vaccine supply chains: Collaboration is the key to success

03 Mar 2021 23:20 | Anonymous

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised awareness of supply chains. Things that few people thought twice about before — like toilet paper being readily available on supermarket shelves — suddenly made the headlines when they didn’t happen anymore. Sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE) became a hotly debated issue and, towards the end of 2020, vaccine supply and distribution caught the public attention.

Collaboration in existing and new ways became common place. New collaborations and ventures were encouraged to respond to global scarcity of items such as ventilators, hand sanitiser and PPE. Researchers were asked to respond to Covid-19 rapid funding calls to understand the magnitude and impact of the pandemic on all aspects of our lives. The outcome of which quickly led to the generation of a wealth of intelligence and paved the way to the development of numerous viable vaccines.

The initial supply shortages and the complexity of distributing temperature-sensitive and labile vaccines will not have come as a surprise to many of us working in this area. With the first vaccines gaining authorisation, terms like hubs and ultra-cold chains made their way into the media. We first proposed to publish a media article on vaccine supply chain issues in September 2020 but were quickly told that there wasn’t much interest at the moment. The interest came early December 2020.  We responded to this by producing a series of three articles relating to the vaccine rollout programme as reported globally.

Tens of thousands of people have read our articles since December. Requests for contributions from radio, television, and print media followed. It has been an exhilarating though time-consuming experience. Most importantly, it was been a joy to use our expertise to condense a vast amount of complex information into comprehensible chunks and to do our part in fighting misinformation.

The Covid-19 vaccine supply chain is inherently complex due to the strict guidelines for the movement and storage of the vials, as well as the sheer scale of rolling out newly developed products to the entire world. Capacity issues exist on the supply side as production facilities are being ramped up. The equipment to safely transport the products is being deployed.  Thousands of flights are needed to distribute the vaccines around the globe, in the midst of the greatest ever crisis of the air transport industry.

The demand side is also experiencing challenges. Various countries are being criticised for their slow roll-out of vaccinations. While large vaccination hubs are appealing in terms of ensuring appropriate handling and storage of vaccines, reaching vulnerable populations is much easier through a decentralised model of local vaccination centres at doctors’ surgeries, pharmacies, and care homes. Logistically, that raises questions of waste, both through user errors and through a mismatch of supply and demand. More recently the delays associated with vaccines caused by supplier capacity issues have reminded us of the importance of procurement and contracting decisions in sourcing these vital products. Trust is imperative in collaborations and this is especially pertinent now.

We would be the first to remind our academic colleagues that there are many areas in which purchasing and supply chain professionals/academics can contribute their expertise to support business and social agendas. We have found that, as in so many situations, collaboration is key. This work on the vaccine supply chain is the first time we have collaborated. It has worked exceedingly well. Our first vaccine article reportedly having a ‘reach’ of 2.5 million readers.

Different experience and disciplines (one of us is employed by a School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, the other by a Business School) offer complementary points of view. It is important to understand what each of us can contribute and also what we are not familiar or comfortable with.

These are confusing times full of complex problems. None of us are able to solve or even comprehend them all. But as purchasing and supply chain professionals, we can all add a part to the larger puzzle. Our expertise is probably more needed than ever before. Let’s contribute. Together.


COVID vaccine: some waste is normal – but here's how it is being kept to a minimum  

COVID vaccines are starting to arrive – here’s how everyone will get them. The  Conversation.    

Vaccines are here, but how will we get them to billions of people. The Conversation.

The Authors

Liz Breen Director of the Digital Health Enterprise Zone (DHEZ), University of Bradford, Reader in Health Service Operations, University of Bradford

Sarah Schiffling Senior Lecturer in Supply Chain Management, Liverpool John Moores University

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