The Cold Truth of the COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chain

By Phil Burnette - Vice President, National Accounts
By John Cox - National Accounts
Technical Transportation, Inc

The COVID-19 vaccine deployment is still in its early stages, and we're taking note of some interesting trends while keeping an eye out for some potential supply chain challenges in the near future.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services originally awarded Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna with contracts for 100 million doses each and then extended a follow-up contract to both companies for another 100 million doses each. The combined contracts total 400 million doses with an expected delivery date to vaccination points around the country by May/June.

It's been a slow start on the supply side so far, with only 20 million doses having been administered as of this writing. At this pace, it would take our country more than three years to administer the 400 million doses that have been ordered. Outside of any vaccine manufacturing issues, there are several mitigating supply chain factors that have contributed to this early sluggishness, including:

  1. The vaccine launched during the holiday season, and the primary delivery companies for the vaccine effort were in the midst of their busiest season.
  2. The healthcare system has been overwhelmed the past several months with COVID-19 cases, meaning there are fewer qualified and trained healthcare workers available to run vaccine clinics. Some providers are resorting to volunteer-based clinics to meet the demand.
  3. States seemed unable to prepare for the logistic roll out for distribution and administration of the vaccines.

While availability of vaccines may be the primary cause for the delays today, we believe that in the coming weeks and months, supply of doses will become less of an issue as vaccine manufacturers become more efficient and are able to produce the vaccine quickly. As distribution continues, the ability to administer the vaccine in a timely manner may very well become a primary limiting factor.

A Cold Storage Problem

To achieve this, vaccination centers will need to store vaccines locally. While it sounds simple enough, these vaccines cannot be kept in standard medical refrigerators for extended periods of time. Both vaccines require access to medical-grade freezers for long-term storage at the point of use, and it’s complicated by the fact that the Pfizer and Moderna shots have incompatible storage requirements in their frozen state. Meaning, you can’t keep them in the same type of freezer. The Moderna vaccine can be kept in a standard scientific freezer from -25C/-15C but the Pfizer vaccine requires storage of -70C, a temperature that can only be achieved by ultra low temperature (ULT) freezers.

Combine that with the fact that not all points of vaccination have an adequate supply of either standard or UTL freezers to meet the coming surge in demand, and you can see a potential for further bottlenecks and delays.

Pfizer is currently using an innovative just-in-time (JIT) delivery method at the moment that incorporates cooler boxes with dry ice. This is keeping the cold storage problem at bay for now, but may not solve the problem long term. This will especially be the case if vaccination administration sites (especially in rural areas) are unable to vaccinate the local population at the same pace as doses become available, causing a build up of supply at the point of use, and potentially leading to spoilage.

Additional challenges such as patient issues with booking appointments, missed vaccination appointments due to no-shows, and possible apprehension from those receiving the vaccine could all contribute to a dosage-management whirlwind at vaccination sites. Without the proper equipment to ensure that no doses are wasted, the current order and distribution process may not be practical or sustainable as deliveries scale higher.

To further add to the situation, many of the top cold storage equipment manufacturers have a 6-8-week lead time in all of their products. Meaning, for vaccination centers that want or need more cold storage, they need to place their orders as soon as possible to meet the upcoming surge in vaccine supply and demand.

A Supply Chain Solution

For those companies manufacturing cold storage equipment, the supply chain itself should not be adding to any delays. Logistics and supply chain companies can help in a couple of ways:

  1. The Front End - By providing local storage space in off-site warehouses, manufacturers can move raw materials, components and parts out of their facilities and create more room for additional production space. Also, provide timely deliveries of those parts back to the manufacturer when called upon.
  2. The Back End - Having a single-source supply chain solution for the finished product can help mitigate any issues that may arise. This means working with a provider that can offer same-day white glove delivery, setup, installation and training for each unit, so it can be up and in working order as quickly as possible. Ideally, your partner can also offer services and repairs in the field to troubleshoot any issues.

With so many challenges and bottlenecks facing the current vaccination distribution supply chain, you don't want the delivery, setup and operation of your refrigerator or specialized freezer to be part of the problem.

Working with a provider who can offer turnkey solutions and manage the successful shipping, delivery and installation of your equipment can ensure you are part of the solution for getting vaccines to everyone, everywhere.

Getting this right can potentially save lives, and TechTrans is here to help. Click here to contact us today.