By Purushottam Meena
Dr. Anthony Fauci thinks that drug companies may develop a COVID-19 vaccine before year’s end.
But that doesn’t mean the pandemic will be over.
Distributing hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will pose an enormous challenge, and our country’s medical supply chain — responsible for producing, transporting, and delivering crucial equipment and treatments — is already overwhelmed.
From shortages of life-saving medical devices to logistical obstacles, the United States is woefully unprepared — especially since the flu season will complicate the rollout of any such vaccine.
COVID-19 cases started soaring in the United States in mid-March. We haven’t yet experienced an entire season with influenza and the coronavirus both circulating at full force.
A concurrent surge would be a disaster. COVID-19 and the flu cause similar respiratory symptoms. Hospitals experienced shortages of supplies toward the beginning of the pandemic, forcing states to compete for ventilators and respirators. Given that hundreds of thousands of Americans are hospitalized with the flu each year, an influx of more patients with similar needs could create even larger demand for equipment that’s in short supply.
Stopping this surge will require an adequate number of flu vaccines, more supplies, closely monitored delivery, and more funding — all of which the vaccine supply chain already struggles with.
Even before COVID-19, there were limited reserves of the medical-grade glass used to make vaccine vials. The glass contains a specific composition of chemicals, which makes it more resistant to temperature changes and helps keep vaccines stable.
The syringes used to inject inoculations are also running low. The United States needs an estimated 850 million more syringes to distribute both coronavirus and seasonal influenza vaccines. As of May, it only had 15 million stockpiled. Though the Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with several companies to manufacture 820 million more syringes, only 420 million will be available by the end of the year.
There are also shortcomings within the “cold chain” for vaccines. Vaccines have to be kept at a constant, cool temperature, typically between 35 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, even when transported across the country. Outside of this range, they lose their potency and must be thrown away. It only takes one trucking leg that isn’t temperature-controlled to spoil an entire batch.
If there’s any hope in preventing vaccine shortages, these issues must be addressed.
The U.S. government has entered into contracts with multiple companies, allowing them to expand their manufacturing capacities and make more vials. Fostering more of these partnerships between government and private enterprises would help alleviate roadblocks in the vaccine supply chain.
The government could also rethink how it allocates vaccines. Flu vaccines are distributed based on cities’ and states’ populations. But this approach doesn’t reflect the share of the population that is willing to actually get the vaccine. When the uptake rate in a population is low, unused vaccines accumulate. Officials should take uptake rates into account to prevent surpluses in some regions and shortages in others.
These changes won’t help without a more streamlined cold chain transportation process. Simple changes — like limiting handoff points, consolidating shipments, and monitoring the temperature of shipments in real-time — can mitigate damages to scarce vaccine supplies.
Developing a COVID-19 vaccine is merely the beginning of the end of this pandemic. To wipe out the virus, lawmakers need to address shortfalls in the supply chain.
Purushottam Meena, Ph.D., is an associate professor of operations management in the School of Management at New York Institute of Technology. This piece originally published in Business Insider.