Concerns have been expressed about the supply of glass vials © Gareth Fuller - WPA Pool via Getty Images
Concerns have been expressed about the supply of glass vials © Gareth Fuller - WPA Pool via Getty Images

Three key challenges for the Covid vaccine supply chain

8 January 2021

Capacity, packaging and security will be key challenges in the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines, industry experts have warned.

Meeting the UK government's target – to deliver the first dose of a Covid vaccine to up to 15m of the most vulnerable people by mid-February – will require enough capacity to maintain a just-in-time supply chain to minimise the need for local storage.

UK regulator the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has just approved Moderna's vaccine, the third to be approved for use in the UK. The first, produced by Pfizer, was approved in November

Kevin Sample, senior consultant at healthcare technology firm GHX, told SM logistical aspects associated with each stage of vaccine production must be considered carefully. 

“While the physical goods needed for the creation of the first runs of production were most likely in place in anticipation of approval by MHRA, the actual fulfilment and distribution of the vaccines could not be tested until the ‘go’ button was pressed,” he said.

1. Capacity 

Sample said the success of the logistical aspects of getting the vaccine to the point of issue would depend heavily on capacity.

“The model needed to meet the government vaccination targets will need to follow something similar to that used in automotive whereby goods are delivered to the point of use at the time that their use is required. It would not need to match the accuracy required in the automotive industry, which is measured in minutes, but the model will need to minimise any need for local storage of the vaccine,” he said. 

“This will need to be matched by the readiness of the vaccination sites to deliver the vaccination to patients. If on Monday 1,000 vaccines are due to be delivered, on Tuesday at least 1,000 patients would need to be booked in for vaccinations.

“Obviously, the inherent issues in this system are that any failure has a domino effect down the line and, with it ultimately leading to patients not receiving their vaccine as planned, would no doubt damage confidence in delivering the government's targets.”

2. Fill and finish

Another crucial stage of delivering the vaccine is a process called “fill and finish”, where doses of the vaccine are put into glass vials and packaged for distribution.

Last month, England's deputy chief medical officer professor Jonathan Van-Tam warned fill and finish was a "critically short resource across the globe", adding shortages of materials needed in the process could slow down the national roll out of vaccines. 

Sample warned global demand for vaccines may present similar supply problems to those encountered around PPE in 2020. 

“From a production aspect there will be similar products required for all of the various vaccines that are being rolled out across the world – with more being added as trials are completed and approvals gained,” he said. 

“For every vaccine delivered to a patient there may be 10 or more suppliers involved in getting the necessary components through the production and distribution processes, all of whom will need to be readied for the huge increase in scale required moving forward.”

Responding to concerns about a shortage of glass vials, Dave Dalton, chief executive of trade body British Glass, said: “Due to the swift nature of developing the Covid vaccines, this is a rapidly moving situation and whilst it is important to look at the immediate needs in supply, British Glass is also addressing and assessing possible long-term solutions such as UK borosilicate glass production.”

3. Security

Madhav Durbha, group VP at LLamasoft, told SM there had been “immense logistical challenges” in the distribution of the vaccine, but security would be another concern to consider in the supply chain. 

“To avoid further distribution complications and delays, there are also security concerns to consider. To avoid theft or tampering of the vaccines, every touchpoint where the change of custody takes place must be monitored and secured. As we look to supply the vaccine both safely and widely, no stone can go unturned.”

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