The United States recently hit a distressing milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: more than 200,000 Americans have died. The only foreseeable solution to the unending devastation is a vaccine, and scientists are racing to find it.
Recent news suggests it may be closer than anticipated. Just this month a fourth U.S. company announced it had begun the final stages of clinical trials, and White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress he expected at least one vaccine will be available by the end of this year, or early next.
With so much of the current discourse focused on creating a vaccine, we must not forget how people will get it.
Efforts to develop a robust distribution plan are well underway. The pharmaceutical companies are working to figure out the best way to build the necessary supply chains to deliver a vaccine to billions of people quickly.
But some of the most promising drug producers, like Moderna Inc. and Novavax Inc., have never successfully brought a vaccine to market, let alone built a distribution channel to billions.
Even well-established pharmaceutical companies are not confident about their distribution capabilities. Remo Colarusso, vice president of supply chain at Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, a company owned by Johnson & Johnson, told The Wall Street Journal, “We’ve never had to do something at this scale before.”
Still, the Center for Disease Control is moving forward quickly under the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed and has asked California, Florida, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Philadelphia to draft coronavirus vaccine-distribution plans.
Any effort is likely to face untested challenges, which the supply chain has not reacted well to in the past.
According to one recent study by Harvard Business Review, many procurement teams were unprepared to handle the sudden change caused by the pandemic, which led to what it called a “reactive and uncoordinated” response.
The pandemic has revealed that our supply chain is tied to our national security. With stakes this high, the federal government has turned to our nation’s military to keep operations moving.
In many ways, the U.S. military invented modern supply chain management. That is why the White House Coronavirus Task Force tapped the military’s expertise to help distribute critical media supplies and work with the private sector to fine-tune its logistics operations.
At the onset of the pandemic, the DOD took several steps to shore up its supply chains. It leveraged its essential workforce by designating all U.S. suppliers of the defense industrial base as critical infrastructure, absolving them of stay-at-home orders. To address the financial strain of the pandemic the Pentagon increased payments to prime contractors by $3 billion to spur cash flow to trickle down the supply chain to tier-two and tier-three suppliers. And, across the world, the DOD has worked with global partners to ensure that international suppliers are not handicapped.
The federal government is also taking advantage of existing military contracts to more rapidly stand up vaccine distribution channels. Just last month the White House announced that McKesson Corporation, a health care supplier for the DOD, will be a central distributor of future COVID-19 vaccines and related supplies.
The DOD’s logistics arm has built an impressive record of delivering results during the pandemic.
For example, one of the DOD’s primary contractors in the Mideast – the logistics company KGL, which supplies food to U.S. bases in Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria – has reported over a 98% on-time delivery rate since March. That’s despite complete border shutdowns, not to mention major civil unrest in Iraq.
Other contractors were successful in making up for lost productivity to continue delivering needed equipment. BAE Systems, which produces the chassis for the PIM artillery, had a COVID exposure on the assembly line at their York, PA facility that forced them to shut down for a week. But by reconfiguring the production line they have been able to start delivering additional machines in the months following the disruption.
These are just a couple of examples of the U.S. military’s effective use of public-private partnerships to uphold the supply chain. It also illustrates how the U.S. military and its partners may be the best prepared to approach the challenge of deploying vaccine and COVID treatments, especially to our troops overseas.
COVID-19 is showing no signs of slowing down and once a vaccine is available Americans will need a supply chain system that will be able to catch up with the virus. As the CDC, pharmaceutical companies, and state and local health officials devise plans for mass distributions of a COVID-19 vaccine, they would do well to follow the military’s model.
Jared Whitley is a long-time politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House, and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. Read Jared Whitley's reports — More Here.
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