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The Supply Chain of Vaccines  

By LLamasoft Editorial Team  August 12, 2020

The Supply Chain of Vaccines

The numbers speak for themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for more than 18 million confirmed infections and over 690,000 deaths since its discovery in December 2019. As humanity continues to adapt its response to the outbreak, a critical race is on – a race to identify, produce and distribute a potentially life-saving vaccine.

The race to outsmart COVID-19 began with science and healthcare professionals, will be carried on by life sciences companies, and ultimately will be finished by the supply chain, as an eventual vaccine gets manufactured at scale and carefully distributed through a vast network capable of serving a global population. And while we may be in the early stages of solving the pandemic right now, past efforts to develop life-saving vaccines give us an idea of what to expect in the road ahead.

What goes into a vaccine?

Vaccines prevent dangerous – and potentially deadly diseases. And yet we often take them for granted. But behind each vaccine lies a tremendous amount of research and science, backed by a finely tuned manufacturing process and a supply chain built to ensure these critical medicines reach a global population.

Vaccines work by presenting live or weakened pathogens to a healthy human in low doses to prompt the immune system to start creating the necessary antibodies to fight off an infection.

A challenging development cycle

The development and manufacturing of vaccines take time. If you include the research phase, the usual estimated amount of time to bring a new vaccine to market ranges from five to 18 years. But there’s hope that development cycles could be shortened to meet an immediate crisis, such as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that quickly swept across the globe in early 2020. To date, the quickest a vaccine has been developed and ready for testing is seven months. Development began on it in response to the Zika outbreak in 2015, but the epidemic came to a halt before an approved vaccine could be sent through clinical trials.

Manufacturing capacity investments are already being made by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and others to ensure that rapid production scale-up is possible as soon as a candidate vaccine receives regulatory approval. Billions of doses are aimed to be produced in 2021.

The science behind manufacturing decisions

With many common vaccines, the supply chain is constantly working to serve a global population. However, viruses can mutate and develop different strains over time – and researchers and manufacturers must be ready to adapt.

The flu is a highly contagious virus that affects millions of people each year. And it’s a good example of the work that goes into constantly refining and manufacturing a vaccine at a global scale. According to the CDC, influenza centers in more than 100 nations conduct year-round surveillance for the flu. These labs receive and test thousands of influenza virus samples, sending data to World Health Organization centers for collaboration and research. As a result of the global research effort, the flu vaccine that is distributed to the world each year is designed to protect against the three or four viral strains determined most likely to spread and cause illness among the global population. It takes about six months to manufacture enough of the new flu vaccine for mass distribution. That means for a vaccine to be ready in time for fall, when flu season begins, manufacturers need to begin growing the vaccine virus in January or February of that year.

The supply chain’s role in manufacturing and distributing critical medicine

For a vaccine to effectively reduce or eliminate an infectious disease, the supply chain must work optimally to meet critical areas of demand while also protecting the viability of the vaccine.

There are several factors that make a vaccine supply chain unique:

  • The Cold Chain: Most vaccines must be transported and stored in a constant cold chain of temperatures ranging from two to eight degrees Celsius – from manufacturing all the way through to the immunization of a patient. This places a strain on the delivery, particularly in the last mile, when vaccines are distributed to remote populations in countries with limited infrastructure and electricity.
  • Packaging: Decisions around single syringes versus multi-dose vials affect supply chain capacity.
  • Ancillary Products: Glass vials, stoppers, needles, syringes, raw materials, and more are all needed for successful administration of the vaccine.
  • Production Planning: The long production timelines and short shelf-lives require a combination of accurate demand forecasting and agile product planning.

Limited storage capacity, especially within the cold chain, can lead to waste if inventory and need exceed the supply chain’s ability to continuously move a vaccine from source to final destination. But limited storage capacity at a health facility or warehouse can often be countered by changing delivery frequency, the route, the mode of transportation or even who facilitates the distribution of vaccines.

In the event of a pandemic, such as COVID-19, demand projections for routine immunization and hotspot coverage are key to curbing the spread of the virus. Leaders across the supply chain must carefully consider these many trade-offs and service options to ensure wide and consistent distribution of critical medicine – the supply chain plays a direct role in eliminating infectious diseases.

Drones and last mile

One of the noteworthy innovations for covering the last mile is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for delivery. A leader in the drone delivery space is Zipline. Zipline delivers critical and lifesaving products where they are needed – reaching some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet.

  • By using drones to deliver vaccines, medicines, and other medical supplies to remote areas of countries like Rwanda and Ghana, Zipline can reduce transportation time from several days down to two hours.
  • It reaches vulnerable and underserved communities to counter diseases such as yellow fever, tuberculosis, measles and rubella, meningitis A, tetanus and diphtheria, polio and more.

Vaccines save lives, are proven to be effective, and have a direct impact on the health and well being of the global population. Science and research play a major role in identifying and solving the challenges of producing vaccines to fight infectious diseases – and manufacturing and supply chain processes are crucial to ensuring the safe handling and wide distribution of these medicines. Manufacturers and health systems must work together to ensure the supply chain network is optimized to reach a wide population safely, efficiently and with the least amount of waste – when and where they are needed the most.

Although we are still waiting for a vaccine to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us can do our part to reduce the rate of infection and help ease the strain on healthcare workers so that we can ensure the best treatment to the most vulnerable of patients.


See also:
Vaccines are having a moment [Infographic]