You might have heard from your doctor that with a worldwide pandemic raging, now is exactly the wrong time to come down with the regular old flu. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the world, and a potentially brutal flu season rapidly approaches, healthcare companies are scrambling to keep up with demand for supplies. 

US hospitalizations are rapidly increasing, resulting in the continued need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel, and other medical necessities. A record number of influenza shots are being distributed to US pharmacies as well, with shipments staggered throughout November. Meanwhile, healthcare supply chains are busy retooling for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine, which is expected to be one of the biggest distributions of vaccines in history. Amid all of this complexity, healthcare and pharmaceutical companies must also comply with heavy regulations as they transport the medications and supplies that people depend upon daily. 

To combat these unprecedented supply chain challenges, leading pharma companies are investing heavily in supply chain visibility to ensure an agile supply chain that can quickly adapt to changing conditions and spikes in demand across the globe. The need for better intelligence of what’s actually happening on the ground is the only way to stay on top of disruption planning, given supply and demand imbalance, weather disruptions, capacity challenges and more. 

With real-time visibility comes precise decision-making and the ability to quickly adapt to unforeseen circumstances. When every moment of delay could put someone’s life in danger, the stakes have never been higher for pharmaceutical supply chains.

The Challenges of Vaccine Distribution

According to FreightWaves, at least 10 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine will likely be required to fully immunize the 7.8 billion people on the globe. As trials progress on a COVID-19 vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun to lay out a distribution and communication plan unlike any the world has seen. The CDC has stated that “initial doses of vaccine will likely be distributed in a limited manner, with the goal of maximizing vaccine acceptance and public health protection while minimizing waste and inefficiency.” As such, one of the key considerations for this early phase is ensuring that officials are able to keep a close eye on the inventory, distribution and repositioning of vaccine doses every step of the way.

Vaccine manufacturers and distributors not only need to know accurate arrival times; they must also ensure that safety and compliance standards are met throughout the vaccine’s journey. While that may sound simple, here are some of the factors that pharmaceutical companies need to consider:

  1. Multiple modes: Experts estimate that dozens of cargo flights will be needed each day to transport the vaccine to airports around the world, where local carriers will be waiting to transfer the cargo to either road or rail. Keeping a finger on the pulse of that many moving parts operating across so many different modes will be a tremendous task.
  2. Security concerns: With such valuable and sought-after cargo, security of shipments in transit will be a top priority in certain global regions. Thus, companies will need to have capabilities that allow them to monitor when a truck deviates from its planned route, or enters an area where theft commonly occurs. 
  3. Temperature controls: Even in regions where security of the load is not a risk, shipments must remain subject to rigorous temperature controls in order to remain potent upon arrival at their final destination. For most vaccines, this means being kept frozen well below 0 degrees, and having measures in place to alert the shipper the moment those temperature controls are compromised.
  4. Transit time deviations: Transit time planning and temperature controls are deeply woven together. On the distribution side, if the packaging can maintain within tolerance for 3 days, and the planned package transit is 2 days, any deviations or delays must be flagged in real time. This allows manufacturers, distributors and logistics service providers to maintain quality control measures, minimize risk and prevent lost revenue. In the event deviations occur that require product to move out of quality measures, the product must be controlled so it is not distributed to market.

Putting COVID’s Early Lessons to Use

These are tough challenges, indeed, but with help from some of the industry’s most cutting-edge technologies, we can make it work. FourKites has been a top innovator in providing visibility to the global supply chain industry for years now, and we’ve built our solutions in direct collaboration with companies that face these challenges every day. Whether you’re monitoring the temperature of a shipment, its location or even its physical security, these problems have all been solved before.

We saw this with another critical component of the medical supply chain: personal protective equipment (PPE). Since the very beginning of this crisis, efficient distribution of PPE has been so critical to supply chain operations. As COVID-19 spiked across the US this summer, and reserves of PPE dwindled at hospitals and other medical facilities, FourKites helped one major manufacturer manage a tidal wave of check calls and customer requests for the status of their orders. Needless to say, all of these requests took valuable time away from transportation and customer service teams, who should have been focused instead on processing shipments and managing delivery exceptions. Using FourKites, they were able to flag loads filled with medical equipment, and proactively communicate their status to customers, simultaneously easing the burden on internal teams while improving the quality of service to customers desperate for supplies. 

All of these are encouraging developments. With production and distribution capabilities stretched to their limits, we need to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that every dose of vaccine makes it to its final destination. 

Life After the Pandemic

The world will likely never be exactly the same as it was before COVID-19. This past year has brought to life challenges and hardships like we’ve never seen in our lifetime. It’s also highlighted something supply chain leaders have known for a long time: You never know when the next disruption will come, so preparation is key for long-term success. In an industry where a delayed shipment can mean life or death, there’s never been a better time to invest in real-time visibility.

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To learn more about how FourKites real-time visibility platform can help you build a more agile and resilient pharmaceutical supply chain, download your copy of our 2021 Supply Chain Agility Planning Toolkit, or connect with us here.

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