About Vaccines and Logistics

Some of the best news in fighting Covid 19 has been announced during the month of December, 2020. In the United States, two vaccines with high ratings of effectiveness were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. Immediately, plans were announced by the federal government to distribute vaccines to the fifty states, along with an initial goal to vaccinate 20 million people during the month of December. As of December 30, 2.8 million people had been vaccinated according to tracking by the New York Times. By contrast, the Federal government said they’d shipped 12.4 million doses by late December.

So, what happened? Why is the number of people vaccinated so far short of the goals? The answer is no doubt complex, but meeting these kinds of goals is dependent upon the process known as logistics. Let’s quote a portion of the entry from Investopedia, which can be found at this link: “Logistics refers to the overall process of managing how resources are acquired, stored, and transported to their final destination.” The authors go on to note that the term originated in the military, but has since been adopted by companies in the private sector. Now, in the case of the Covid 19 vaccines, one could adapt this definition to say that the logistics for vaccines start with producing them and then they need to be distributed, stored and administered by qualified professionals.

In the US, so far, two companies, Moderna and Pfizer have produced vaccines and both vaccines have very specific requirements on ultralow temperatures at which they need to be transported and stored. These temperature requirements have a big impact on what kinds of transportation can be used to even move the vaccines from the producers to a destination in the fifty states. Companies like UPS and FedEx have put aside specialized transportation resources such as overnight air delivery and trucks to maintain the required temperature controls and safely deliver the vaccines in bulk to various sites.

Several of the definitions of logistics refer to controlling operations in a single company. But in the case of Covid 19 vaccines, many companies are involved, so part of the logistics challenge in this case is effectively managing a whole series of handoffs. The kinds of companies involved include the vaccine suppliers, the transportation vendors, hospitals, major drug stores chains such as Walgreens and CVS and nursing homes. Uh-oh. Sounds complicated. How does this get managed? Well, the federal government has the Warp Speed project and the agency that usually sets up guidelines for vaccine distribution is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC released an interim playbook for Covid 19 Vaccination Program on October 29, which is targeted to all of the states and other jurisdictions which need to devise plans and execute operations to deliver the vaccines.

Whew. Sounds like good news. The CDC has come up with an interim plan. But then, every one of the states and other jurisdictions such as US territories and tribes need to create their own plan and execute it. Hmm. That’s a lot of handoffs and many possibilities for things to go wrong. In addition, the funding to do all of this distribution is still a work in progress.

In summary, the logistics of distributing these vaccines to a high percentage of the US population will be complicated and expensive. Within industry, companies manage large and complex supply chains of vendors in order to produce and ultimately distribute their products and services to some portion of the US population. The scale of the Covid 19 vaccine distribution is much broader and will be run by many different government organizations, typically at the state level. So when a national politician makes an estimate on how long it will take to distribute vaccines to execute even one phase of the vaccine distribution (for example, to all health care workers), there’s likely a lot of guess work going on. To get more accurate results, teams within each state need to determine who will be targeted for each phase of vaccine distribution and then figure out how to get the required pharmacies, hospitals and other health operations the vaccines they need and make sure they have the appropriate storage facilities and trained personnel.

Each of these state teams will need trained logistics specialists who can devise plans that will work. This is arguably the most complicated logistics program that any of the states have ever encountered. In my own business experience, I’ve found that learning how to make processes more effective is a critical skill. No matter how strong a plan is, effective execution will often make the difference on whether a plan is successful. This is the challenge we now face in the United States. We need effective plans for distributing the Covid 19 vaccines, but effective execution of the plans by a wide variety of organizations and individuals is also required.

Vaccine distribution is a very prominent example of the importance of logistics and supply chain management for businesses and other organizations. Human Communications offers consulting services to businesses and organizations of all sizes in areas such as a review of business plans and the development of product / market or operations strategies. Please contact us if your organization is considering changes to its strategy or has an upcoming new project that would benefit from a fresh look by an experienced business consultant.

James Rafferty has been active in the worlds of telecommunications, standards and university teaching in a variety of roles. He's been a thought leader in areas such as Voice over IP and Internet fax through his consulting, product management, marketing, writing and standards activities, and he is currently teaching business at Northeastern University. He loves to write and talk about new connections, applications and business models as communications, related technologies and business concepts evolve.


Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *