Developing the COVID-19 vaccines was the first step to returning to life as we once knew it, or something similar. But now, global supply chains face a distribution challenge like nothing before: getting it to billions of people as quickly and safely as possible, and in a way that builds trust from those taking it. The challenges faced by supply chains will vary in different parts of the world – the more fragmented the supply chain is, the greater need for a centralized platform to unify the experience. By using technology to collect data and manage the process, supply chain professionals can collaborate to create a seamless experience for all stakeholders involved in the massive vaccine distribution effort while providing provenance, visibility and confidence to satisfy the end users: their constituents.

Supply chain faces challenges with vaccine distribution

Fortune describes the operational chain of command for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution as a spider web of decisions that creates both flexibility and confusion. Time is of the essence, and quickly building the strategy and technology to get vaccines to the right people is crucial. The Wall Street Journal article “The Mass Distribution of COVID-19 Vaccines is Underway” details the complicated distribution process involving the many detailed and critical steps that must happen along the way, from correctly packaging the vials in dry ice to the shipping company affixing a tracking device to each container for real-time location information. Vaccine distribution is made even more complicated and complex due to the following factors:

  • Equitable and safe distribution: Defining, communicating, and delivering the vaccine to priority groups first is key to minimizing virus-related deaths and serious illnesses.
  • Continuous rollout: Balancing the supply with the desired rollout pace, troubleshooting issues with raw materials, and proactively identifying and preventing bottlenecks are among the challenges at play for continuous distribution.
  • Constituent trust: Throughout the distribution process, all stakeholders must proactively work to build people’s trust both in the vaccine’s efficiency and equity of the distribution process.
  • Limited visibility across the supply chain: Much of the key internal and external stakeholders need data to make the right decisions in real time – much of the data is trapped in silos, outdated or not easily available.
  • Two vaccines required per person: With two injections required for some vaccines, twice as many vaccines must be produced and delivered. The length of time between the injections varies depending on the vaccine manufacturer, requiring that the appropriate vaccines be available at the right time and place.
  • Temperature requirements: Both of the currently approved vaccines must be kept cold. While Moderna’s vaccine can be stored in a traditional freezer, the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius, requiring special considerations for transport.
  • Multiple participants: With stakeholders spread across governmental agencies and companies — each with different tasks, challenges and needs – there is often no single owner of the distribution execution, and the process becomes exponentially more complex with each additional player in the effort.

Only as strong as the weakest link: a smarter supply chain experience to support the entire ecosystem

Supply chain innovation has accelerated exponentially in response to COVID-19– through necessity to get food, product and supplies to customers. At the same time organizations have challenged orthodoxies of the past, collaborating in new ways to develop the vaccine in record time. Now stakeholders must do the same in the next phase of distributing to individuals. All parties involved share the responsibility of provenance and integrity. Constituent trust must remain the top priority throughout the supply chain — and this means trust in the source, quality, administration process and aftercare.

An end-to-end technology infrastructure and platform will support each stakeholder to provide a seamless experience with safety and security at the core. With the right architecture in place, supply chain professionals and stakeholders have the real-time visibility across the ecosystems at the batch level to manage recalls, temperature and handling history. Let’s look at how each stakeholder in the ecosystem might benefit from a smarter supply chain experience:

  • Suppliers: The suppliers require data to ensure there is enough product available at the right quality and provide the required feedback loop throughout the supply chain. They need to connect legacy pharmaceutical systems with the software system developed for ordering vaccines to continuously feed the right batch lot information into the supply chain.
  • Federal + State: As the buyers of the product, federal and state governments are driving the demand signal. They require real-time visibility of inventory availability, as the connectivity between suppliers and governments will determine the speed of distribution. Using an AI-based platform that seamlessly integrates with other technologies can provide data to enable these stakeholders to act with speed and uphold visibility and trust.
  • Distribution & 3PL: This is the glue of the supply chain, ensuring the vaccine makes it the last mile in a dynamic and ever-changing environment. Key challenges of ensuring safe and equitable distribution include upholding cold chain requirements and delivering to priority groups. Using an integrated, predictive order management system, supply chain professionals can proactively solve challenges and remove roadblocks that could affect delivery and transportation.
  • Administration: Healthcare professionals manage the administration of the vaccine for their patients and monitor side effects, both of which require transparency and trust. Using a platform that allows them to track vaccine temperature and conditions, manage patient vaccine status, coordinate patients receiving vaccines and report side effects through mobile devices, providers can more effectively ensure safe administration.
  • Constituents: Everything in the supply chain functions to serve the end user – in this case, the constituent – so building trust with them is paramount. Individuals need to know what to expect with the administration processes, before and after receiving the vaccine. Mobile apps can provide people with the information they need about getting vaccinated such as timing and reminders of scheduled vaccinations, and securely share their vaccination status to aid in a return to normalcy. In the post-vaccination phase, smart tracing with a database that tracks immunization and testing credentials is an important consideration to uphold constituent trust for returning to travel, work, and attending events.

By focusing on creating a data-driven process with real-time visibility, supply chain professionals can play a crucial role in one of the biggest distribution challenges in generations.

By partnering with IBM Services, organizations can build smarter supply chain experiences. Learn more about Supply Chain services.

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