As January 2021 nears its close, recent events and developments have become increasingly evident that the global and domestic scale volumes of production, distribution and administration of COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine are indeed a significant challenge not undertaken in such magnitudes.
In this abbreviated Supply Chain Matters COVID-19 Healthcare Supply Chain Disruption News Capsule we address the latest developments related to current concerns related to global availability of COVID-19 vaccine supply.
We reference readers to a published Scientific American article penned by freelance journalist Charles Schmidt: New COVID Vaccines Need Absurd Amounts of Material and Labor. This article begins with the reality statements:
“Barely a year ago few people outside a small network of scientists and companies had heard of mRNA vaccines. Today millions are pinning their hopes on these genetics-based immunizations, which have taken center stage in the fight against COVID. But deficiencies in needed supplies and materials for making the vaccines could lead to widespread shortages, some scientists say.”
The report cites Maria Elena Bottazzi, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston who indicates: “There aren’t any facilities in the world that have manufactured mRNA at such a large scale before.” A research and development executive at a Boston based synthetic biology firm is quoted: “Each step in the manufacturing process requires raw materials that, before COVID, were only produced in amounts needed for clinical research- not sustained production of billions of doses.”
Bloomberg’s Supply Lines column noted today; “even under ideal conditions, getting jabs into the arms of 7.8 billion people would test the delicate choreography of world’s supply chains in ways unseen in peacetime.” Quoted is data from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations indicating: “.the typical vaccine manufacturing plant utilizes upwards of 9,000 different materials sourced from 300 suppliers across 30 different countries.”
There are, of-course, risks on the part of pharmaceutical companies as to whether specific vaccines meet immunity goals. This week, global pharmaceutical provider Merck, a major player in vaccines, announced the halting of the company’s two experimental vaccines after early clinical trial data had demonstrated disappointing results. The pharma giant will instead pivot toward advancing two experimental drugs being developed to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients.
Vaccine Nationalism Concerns
With increasing spread of the virus and now with new mutation variants being discovered, nations have become increasingly concerned regarding the short and longer-term availability of vaccine supplies and the associated logistics for inoculating millions of citizens.
A hot point development this week has been announcements from vaccine producers AstraZeneca and Pfizer of production disruptions and delivery shortfalls to European Union countries. Bloomberg reported that EU Commission President Ursula der Leyen had grilled AstraZeneca’s CEO for recently announced shortfalls in this quarter’s contracted supply. Last week, Pfizer reported an issue at its Belgium based factory that would similarly reduce deliveries to EU nations.
Of added concern in the report was that EU policymakers are contemplating a “export transparency scheme” that would require all countries producing COVID vaccines in the EU to provide early notification of exports to non-EU countries. The fear is that such a measure may encourage other nations to enact the same restrictions on domestically produced production.
In the United States, the Trump Administration had previously enacted an Executive Order requiring U.S. based vaccine providers Moderna and Pfizer to prioritize domestic production to U.S. supply contracts. The Trump plan was one where Operation warp Speed would acquire needed vaccine supply, but individual U.S. States were tasked with vaccine administration, logistics and delivery of injections.
Last week, President Biden unveiled a new plan calling for a more centralized federal management of vaccine supply and administration. The President further invoked his own order titled “Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain,” which reportedly authorizes federal agencies to “to fill shortfalls as soon as practicable by acquiring additional stockpiles, improving distribution systems, building market capacity, or expanding the industrial base.” It is unclear at this point as to whether such a federal priority effort would lead to protecting domestic vaccine supply.
What This Means
There should be little doubt that global countries should be concerned about adequate supply, logistics and administration of available vaccines.
Unquestionably, this is a global emergency.
However, supply chain management methodology related to unconstrained global demand and current limited supply calls for some form of managed allocation on the part of vaccine producers, at least until supply levels can be ramped to individual contract needs. That is not the same as vaccine nationalism, which could be interpreted to be a form of hoarding if not managed on a global equity basis.
We therefore urge the World Health Organization, global foundations and other agencies that have been actively involved in the planning of global vaccine distribution to continue to work with individual vaccine producers as they navigate their production ramp-up efforts. Global wide attention to ramp-up of required raw material compounds and active ingredients, improving yield and quality efforts related to high volume production, and smart leveraging of all existing and planned global production capacity can collectively be coordinated.
While there are surely frustrations, this is a time of global wide collaboration and coordination. In some cases, supplies of raw materials, injection vials and needles may have to take precedence for global needs of raw materials such as purified glass. The reality is that vaccinating an estimated 8 billion people is a daunting challenge and requires global-wide efforts and determination.
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