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The COVID-19 vaccine rollout provides powerful lessons to industry watchers.
Supply chain leaders everywhere can learn from this effort and use it to examine their own company's vulnerabilities, risks and challenges.
"Everything from the site of manufacturing to the end destination requires precise coordination and timing to ensure an optimal state of inventory," said Sanket Shah, clinical assistant professor of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Supply chain participants have had to move from processes with many manual steps in distributing medicines to more integrated processes in a short period, he said.
Leaders of consumer products with cold chain requirements, in particular, should watch vaccine supply chain developments closely.
"Supercold supply chains [such as the one needed for Pfizer's vaccine] have significant implications for the world of consumer products," said Darcy MacClaren, senior vice president and head of digital supply chain sales at SAP North America.
Take grocery for example, MacClaren said. One bad experience with certain brands can destroy all trust consumers have in them. Life sciences and retail industries face similar obstacles and objectives around mitigating and preventing product spoilage.
Here are a few issues the vaccine supply chain is highlighting that other leaders can learn from and apply to their own strategies to become more agile.
Strengthen collaboration across the chain
To scale as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has required an unprecedented need for collaboration.
"We have never needed distribution at this scale," Shah said.
This vaccine supply chain is requiring widescale integration at a scale beyond what enterprises have been accustomed to, he said. Enterprises and government organizations often only understand a portion of the chain for which they are primarily responsible. However, rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines requires that they quickly work toward understanding how best to share information with downstream or upstream entities. Building a cold chain at this massive scale has involved planning a strategy around data sharing, integration and previous learnings.
"The pandemic has certainly provided a very good opportunity for many organizations to prepare for these overall large-scale, complicated distributions," Shah said.
Use real-time monitoring
Ensuring compliance with the stringent vaccine temperature control standards requires monitoring vaccine cases across the cold chain during transit, storage and handling on a near-real-time basis.
That has required better monitoring capabilities using technologies such as IoT-based RFID sensors for monitoring temperature at a more granular level and achieve better data integration to support the cold chain, said Matt Lekstutis, global practice leader of supply chain transformation at Tata Consultancy Services. To keep vaccines safe, inventory needs to keep moving on a close-to-continuous basis. Higher resolution tracking can also identify when products come close to falling outside of acceptable limits and alert personnel to take corrective action during handling, storage, or due to vehicle delays or breakdown, though these are not always possible given the complexity of the supply chains, although this has been imperfect.
"Near-real-time monitoring of temperature on a continuous basis is still not possible in many geographies and cases," Lekstutis said.
Leaders across other supply chains can consider using newer technologies, such as sensors that are used in the vaccine supply chain and sophisticated AI tools to boost track-and-trace capabilities and monitor temperature, handling and time at rest.
Do demand-supply alignment due diligence
The vaccine distribution efforts have also highlighted the importance of improving how demand and supply are aligned. In the case of the vaccines, healthcare workers have had to discard doses when they could spoil or when there were not enough people lined up to receive a dose in a timely manner.
Lekstutis said this illustrates the importance of increasing the adoption of AI and track-and-trace technologies to help match inventory with demand more precisely. Demand visibility is important for any vendor of perishable goods.
Another lesson other leaders can start to understand is how to improve shipping and tracking for their own organization's supply chains. For example, tracking devices are starting to go beyond just scanning barcodes to gauging temperature, providing additional metadata such as time to destination, and communicating with centralized data centers.
Give attention to chain of custody
Despite certain improved capabilities, thanks to technology, there are still many areas of the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain that need improvement, including temperature monitoring.
Stakeholders involved in vaccine supply chains have been struggling to find ways to capture the granularity and frequency of temperature measurements, and who was responsible for it at each step, said Robert Kelley, senior partner at Headstorm, a software development consultancy. As these issues are worked out for the vaccine supply chain, they will inform better practices in sharing richer data sets about the status of cargo across other supply chains.
For example, traditionally, many supply chain leaders felt it was sufficient to track an entire refrigeration container, but now a number are recognizing the value in tracking the temperature of the actual cargo, he said. Supply chain leaders and their teams can also research how to track the disposition of cargo across the chain of custody for the submission of insurance claims in situations where safety is at risk, such as getting too hot or breaking.
Don't forget supporting elements
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has demonstrated the myriad supporting materials and tools needed for its success.
For example, after the vaccine distribution kicked into full swing, some hospitals discovered they could draw out an extra dose from each vial using a special syringe. However, most hospitals lacked the specialty syringes required to draw out this extra dose.
"The peripherals that support the vaccination process require careful consideration and planning," said Anne Robinson, chief strategy officer at Kinaxis, a supply chain planning vendor.
Some vaccine supply chain stakeholders addressed the issue of supporting materials.
For example, UPS increased its dry ice production ahead of receiving vaccines so it would have enough to support the temperature requirements and expedite the delivery process versus being a hindrance.
Other supply chain leaders can use these examples to consider what supporting tools, materials and success their own products need.