The Covid-19 pandemic will cast a long shadow over many industries and many aspects of regular life. The rapid development of the vaccines and the subsequent efforts to get people vaccinated is no different. Science delivered, but the efforts to get the vaccine to patients saw challenges with quantity and distribution. The life sciences sector will do well to incorporate learnings from the challenging vaccine roll-out.
The supply chain ends at the patient, not earlier
After developing and approving vaccines in record time, ‘the last mile’ became unexpectedly challenging. Delivering vaccines into the arms of the world’s entire population is no small feat, and the task is far from done, yet several areas were clearly underestimated.
- Funding: Billions went into the development of the vaccines (and trillions into steadying economies). Funding to get patients vaccinated, however, was an afterthought – which led to delays and other challenges.
- Planning: Vaccinating the world is a complex logistical operation. Only Israel seems to have gotten it right in one go, while other countries such as the UK and US stumbled before finding their footing. Others, like India, fell flat and are still trying to get up. The lesson here is that the planning process and the drug development process should happen in tandem and must align. The boxes Pfizer delivered contained a large number of doses, which helped significant quantities reach many areas – yet these large amounts complicated vaccination at pharmacies and primary care doctors.
- Communication: As with almost any complex operation, communication is key. In this case, between manufacturer and receiving party (national and local governments) and to the recipients – the patients. Given the speed, urgency and level of misinformation at all levels, clear communication and the ability for people to ask questions was critical but took a lot of time to get to appropriate levels.
Borders still matter
The pharmaceutical supply chain is integrated and global, and borders are highly relevant. It matters where a product is released, packaged and shipped from – including additional factors unsurfaced during the vaccine roll-out.
- Politics: National regulators determined which vaccines were approved (for emergency use or otherwise) for their country. This meant that the US, UK and EU had different vaccines available to them. Even within the EU, national regulators differed on which vaccines to approve. Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese vaccines were acquired and deployed in many developing countries.
- Contracts: The arguments and actions between the EU and AstraZeneca became a farce, albeit demonstrating how nationality and borders are relevant – with AstraZeneca having to prioritise the UK as part of its collaboration agreement with the University of Oxford, and the EU trying to enforce its contract by attempting to flex its muscle. Neither party looked good.
- India is a major player in global vaccine manufacturing. A dramatic surge of Covid infections impacted the global availability of vaccines – highlighting some of the vulnerabilities in the global supply chain.
- Various countries, including the US and China, did at some point limit the export of vaccines or core ingredients to ensure that their own populations were served first. This is not entirely unexpected, but it will force some countries to rethink their dependences. Companies involved anywhere in the pharmaceutical supply chain will do well to anticipate this.
Collaboration is needed and it increases complexity
The pandemic has generated many unexpected bedfellows, and at the same time highlighted that collaboration is possible in many ways if circumstances require it. For example, when Pfizer and BioNTech acted fast and strengthened their collaboration before contracts were negotiated, or Sanofi and Novartis offered manufacturing capacity to their competitors, or AstraZeneca established a collaboration with the University of Oxford in a space where they were newcomers. With ongoing debates on patent waivers, tech transfer and pricing, the collaboration in the vaccine arena will continue to evolve and will further opportunities throughout the industry.