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How logistics players can secure a robust supply chain for COVID-19 vaccination drive

It is imperative that India can lean on and leverage its healthcare and logistics footprint and expertise to support the global fight against any pandemic

R S Subramanian | February 11, 2021 | Updated 21:12 IST
How logistics players can secure a robust supply chain for COVID-19 vaccination drive
The logistics needs for COVID-19 vaccine is far greater and likely expensive

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the single most devastating event of recent times. One good news, however, is that it has made it to the next stage: The one of recovery.  

The recovery is in fact two-fold!

Recovery through international collaboration

Before the pandemic, we had seen several domestic policies in various countries closing their minds towards globalisation. The pandemic, however, hit us all. Countries across the world understood the need for global cooperation to battle this disease. Scientific communities, healthcare workers, government bodies, policymakers, and logistics players, all have come together to take down this Goliath.  

The recovery of bilateral ties in certain cases has also been a turning point. We, in fact, have seen the formation of a global vaccine alliance - COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility  (COVAX) led by CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), World Health Organization, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank. It is the only initiative where world governments, manufacturers, and key stakeholders are working together to make the vaccine available to countries.

Also Read: Mahindra Logistics in talks with Covid-19 vaccine makers; ramping up capacity for global, domestic supply

Road to recovery: The vaccine is here

More than 200 vaccine candidates later, several vaccines are now already available - either fully approved or under emergency authorisation.  

The scientific community, the world over, has collaborated in record time. As per reports from the Centre for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the fastest vaccine ever to have been developed previously, which is before COVID-19, was for mumps. It took four years.  

Today, less than 12 months into the pandemic, we already have COVID-19 vaccines that are either being administered to people or awaiting phase-wise distribution. In India, the vaccination campaign against this deadly coronavirus has already started on January 16, 2021.

Strengthening supply chains & distribution capacity  

Now that the figurative baton has been passed on to players - such as logistics and supply chain players - to assist with the distribution of vaccines to communities around the world, they believe that they have been given a great responsibility towards humanity.  

It is estimated that to ensure global coverage for the next two years, 200,000 pallet shippers and 15,000 flights may be needed.  

Thus, ensuring that the vaccine is delivered from its point of origin to the final destination calls for the planning of a service-delivery model that is both meticulous and detailed, and yet able to respond nimbly to uncertainties. These include stringent temperature requirements that change with each vaccine, structural challenges such as the availability of high-performance cold chain vehicles, storage units, and shipping pallets.

Also Read: Google opening up its spaces to serve as mass COVID-19 vaccination sites: Sundar Pichai

Vaccine logistics in India will be complex

We must recognise that the scale of this vaccine delivery is unprecedented. Globally, nearly 10 billion doses are needed. While in India, in the conservative first phase alone, the government is vaccinating more than 300 million people.

This is a task that is unlike any other prior vaccine delivery effort.  

We have seen that transportation via air freight has emerged as the preferred mode of transportation, given the urgent and widespread global demand. However, in the case of a country as large as India, ensuring transportation of the vaccine across long distances and multiple states will require a well-coordinated and efficient multimodal transportation network.  

Establishing mobile vaccination stations may be helpful to facilitate a fast and dynamic rollout of the vaccinations at the last mile. This may require specifically equipped and temperature-controlled vehicles that can fulfill such strict requirements while ensuring the integrity of the vaccines is not compromised.  

Given its size and geographically diverse regions with varying levels of accessibility, India, therefore, is a logistically 'complex' environment.  

One-size does not fit all: the vaccine drive in India  

India has been a market for mass production of vaccines even in the past. And there is no doubt that it will play a major role in producing the COVID-19 vaccine - even for export. However, the logistics needs for the COVID-19 vaccination drive are far greater and likely expensive. A one-size-fits-all method cannot work here as the requirements per vaccine differ.

While the country is working on administering indigenously developed vaccines, there are some challenges logistics players will need to collaborate with the government on to overcome them.

One of the biggest challenges is the ability to keep up the sustained momentum to cover the rest of the population in the later immunisation phases. Logistics wise, the drive will need robust planning not just for the actual transportation, but also for packaging, handling, and storage at the endpoint.

In fact, beyond temperature control challenges, sanitisation protocols are a point of concern. These need to be upheld right up to the last mile. Safety standards cannot be compromised.

Also Read: Start-ups to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine distribution; a grand challenge launched

A strong infrastructure, including a pre-established network of warehouses and transportation capabilities, will help ensure the availability of critical medical supplies. Logistics players also need to assess if there are any skill gaps and take remedial action.

A joint effort by government and logistics players

We see the success of the immunisation drive as a collaborative effort across stakeholders.

The government is taking the right steps to ease both the import and export of COVID-19 vaccines. This can be seen in the pre-authorisation procedure that is already in place.  

On the logistics front, since the initial phase of the pandemic, the industry has continued to rise to the distribution challenge. Throughout the lockdown, logistics companies worked to make sure that critical medical shipments do not stop. They prioritised the emergency movement needed for the timely delivery of PPE kits, masks, and other medical equipment. The way it was handled is proof of the efficiency of the system in place.

Way forward

While logistics players will continue to focus on planning, collaboration, and communication for this pandemic, the lesson here is that global cooperation is crucial to better prepare and/or prevent the next pandemic.

India, in fact, is the biggest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. This would mean it would have to recognise the need, as the country moves forward, to focus on capacity building measures on all fronts.

It is imperative that India can lean on and leverage its healthcare and logistics footprint and expertise to support the global fight against any pandemic.

(The author is SVP and Managing Director, DHL Express India.)

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