Can the US solve its COVID-19 vaccination supply chain problems?

Some experts see obstacles and solutions to the swift and secure delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine

Image: iStock.com/Udom Pinyo

The US has moved into a new phase in fighting the deadly COVID-19, as vaccine distribution is now well underway and President Joe Biden has vowed to take swift action on the pandemic.  During his first day on the job, he tweeted that he will "be signing executive actions to expand testing, administer vaccines, and safely reopen schools and businesses." Although the Washington Post has reported that only 2.8 million people have been fully vaccinated at this point, President Biden has promised to administer 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days of his administration. And recently, private companies like Walmart, Starbucks, and Microsoft have joined up with local governments in the effort to deliver vaccines.

While the US Food and Drug Administration green-lit the first vaccine for emergency use in December, and the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines are currently being circulated there are still some major hurdles to overcome, to ensure its successful execution. One of the major obstacles is availability.

A survey of 1,800 medical suppliers recently exposed the fact that 360 different variations of needles are "capped," meaning that there are shortages. According to Sandor Boyson, a research professor and founding co-director of the Supply Chain Management Center at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, 850 million needles and syringes are required for successful delivery of the vaccine.

SEE: How cybercriminals are now exploiting COVID-19 vaccines (TechRepublic)  

Khaled Naim, CEO and co-founder of management software Onfleet, a business delivering prescription medications, said in an interview there were other factors to consider in distributing the vaccine safely and efficiently. According to Naim, the US should increase the number of locations to deliver the vaccine, employing the use of large arenas and other venues, and ensuring that they are accessible and safe. Another key component is to make sure that hospitals, clinics, and other facilities are ready to receive the vaccine, in terms of privacy, legal matters, and other considerations.

"This is a distribution problem at a scale never seen before by humanity, and with significant constraints to go along with it—cold storage, etc.," Naim said. "Like a flock of geese in flight, you can only move as fast as your slowest bird (that is, link) in your supply chain. There are many challenges and details to slow down this massive operation."

"Beyond the supply chain, there is a communication mandate to inform, coordinate, and educate," Naim added. "Beyond this, there is a supply and demand problem of multiple vaccinations, production, and different administering of doses depending upon which vaccination is delivered."

Ali Haughton, global healthcare strategist at SailPoint, noted the change in healthcare workforces will put the integrity of vaccine distribution at a higher risk of security breaches. 

"Traditionally, public health departments have poor IT infrastructures," Haughton said, "and this crisis has highlighted that. Public Health Departments are tasked with doing so much, yet their overall budgets are oftentimes much too small. As such, they have all these workarounds, and frankly, there are too many paper-based methods for recording information, and the lack of automation is a potent brew for errors."

Delivery is dependent on how each state handles healthcare, she said. "States who prioritized public health will have an easier time scaling their vaccine distribution plans."

Haughton says she is also concerned about transparency and communication. In New Jersey, where smokers have been prioritized, she believes that one of the factors—that smokers have poor smell—means that they are at higher risk of passing along the disease. 

She does believe that although the US has a safe distribution system, and "by all accounts, the vaccine is being distributed safely, that "unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the vaccine is not being administered in a timely manner, and as such, we are having issues of spoilage and waste."

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