The need to develop the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain now!

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IT is exciting to read every day that the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine is heating up. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies globally are researching and developing around 100 vaccine candidates, with at least 10 currently in early phases of human testing, according to the World Health Organization.

One, or two vaccine, doses are anticipated per person, immunizing 60 percent to 80 percent of the population to achieve herd immunity globally. At least 5.6 billion people need inoculations, meaning development of a lot of vaccine doses in a short amount of time.

Pharmaceutical companies and a host of other parties, including governments, nonprofit organizations and pharmaceutical suppliers, are busy readying the supply chain to handle that high number of vaccines. This is taking place while trying to maintain production of other inoculations—including the seasonal flu—and other medical products using some of the same materials and manufacturing capacity.

The vaccine supply chain involves not only manufacturing the vaccine contents, but storage and packaging components, cold chain transit, domestic and global shipping, distribution strategies and storage.

Speeding the development timeline

Covid-19 vaccines could be ready for some frontline workers and at-risk populations later this year, or early 2021. Unlike with traditional development timelines, interested parties are throwing money at this development process to speed up availability.

After lab testing, researchers move to animal testing and ultimately to humans. Then they build up manufacturing capability depending on the vaccine technology used. They need to start the manufacturing capacity today, and the problem is it requires significant investment.

Vaccines are complicated to manufacture, even compared to other pharmaceutical products. Producing the antigen, which provokes the body’s immune response, uses different techniques depending on the vaccine’s design. The vaccine candidates use different technology types, like protein-based, non-replicating viral vectors, or DNA vaccines. This means the equipment and processes to produce the vaccine differ.

The filling and packaging materials vary as well, whether in multi-dose vials, or single syringes. All of this is done in a highly sterile environment with temperature controls and using skilled personnel. Equipment and processes must be tested and government-approved, along with testing the finished product.

Sourcing at scale presents shortage concerns

AS a regulated product, vaccines manufacturers have limits on what they can use, making sourcing more complicated:

Glass and stoppers

Needles and syringes

Chemicals and vaccine components

Vaccines can use thousands of ingredients, including adjuvants which strengthen the body’s immune response to an inoculation.

Many of the chemicals used in pharmaceuticals come from China and India.

Nimble manufacturing capacity

Manufacturing billions of anything in a short time frame is a feat under normal circumstances. But there are no available manufacturing facilities just waiting for the coronavirus vaccines. Globally, manufacturers produce 5 billion vaccine doses annually, including 1.5 billion flu vaccines. And without excess capacity, production of a new coronavirus vaccine will cut into current vaccine production.

The vaccine technology platform matters for packaging and delivery, and for manufacturing, as the vaccine candidates use different approaches.

Vaccine producer Johnson & Johnson said it was committing $1 billion to expand manufacturing at its four facilities, and Sanofi also is scaling up.

Transportation and the vaccine supply chain

Distributing and storing vaccines through the cold chain is easily done across the country, provided logistics and transportation are moving continuously. However, it requires adequate cool storage facilities, refrigerated containers, and experience in handling vaccines.

And that’s a big issue: most of the vaccines under development now need to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius! That logistic infrastructure is not available. It is essential that the research find ways to bring the storage and transport temperature to a significantly higher level.

The Covid-19 vaccines would not all be available at once, giving suppliers and manufacturers additional time to ramp up and continue production. Initial doses would likely go to frontline health workers and vulnerable populations. Initially government entities would help distribute vaccines, but likely companies would then take over that role.

What does this mean for the Philippines?

You saw the recent headlines?

PHL seeks access to Covid-19 vaccine

The government will spend P20 billion to buy vaccines for Covid-19, as soon as these become available later this year

Manila ready to procure vaccine—Isko.

It is high time for government and the private sector to get together and discuss the vaccine handling from arrival in the country through cold storage and nationwide refrigerated container distribution to the Filipinos that need to be vaccinated. As mentioned above, also in the Philippines storage and distribution at minus 80 degrees Celsius is not available. But the good news is that one logistics company can handle the storage and distribution at minus 18 degrees Celsius!

Who should be on this interagency/private sector committee?

ON the government side: Department of Health,  Food and Drug Administration, Bureau of Customs (BOC), Department of the Interior and Local Government, including local government units, government hospitals, etc.

On the private sector side: pharmaceutical companies, logistics experts handling, storing and distributing vaccines already, private hospitals, etc.

Other issues that need to be considered by the joint committee:

Cost of the vaccines

Clearance of the vaccines by the BOC without delays, tax and duty exempt

Special areas must be assigned at airports for flights carrying vaccines

Cost of storage and distribution of vaccines

Transportation equipment

Logistic hubs

Distribution tracking and security

And many more…

As can be seen from this article, the supply chain issues of the vaccines need to be addressed by government and the involved private sector now. If not, the Philippines may have access to vaccines but being unable to handle them which would be disastrous for the Filipinos who need them badly.

Feedback is more than welcome; contact me at [email protected]

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