IT Leadership Opinion

Deciphering the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Challenge

Hirak Kayal, Vice President, Applications

Distribution of the eventual COVID-19 vaccine will be one of the most complex logistical undertakings ever. This will be the first time that the whole population, not just the children, will be vaccinated. The challenges will be double, if it is a two-dose vaccine. Potential bottlenecks that could pose a challenge along the supply chain can happen in intermediate transport, intercontinental shipment, warehousing, downstream distribution and final short-term storage at the point of use. Vaccine Manufacturers will also have to cope with the demand supply situation and need to rapidly adapt sourcing, planning and manufacturing processes as well. As per a report by International Air Transport Association’s Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics, 25% of vaccines are degraded by the time they arrive at the destination whereas temperature errors result in losses of about $34.1 billion annually.

There will be unprecedented demand on a global scale as billions of people seek vaccination over the coming months, and maybe years – and this creates arguably the most challenging supply chain scenario the world has ever seen. As the world prepares for the biggest vaccine launch in history, many questions are surfacing around how the vaccine will safely and efficiently flow through our global supply chains. Hirak Kayal (HK), Vice President – Cloud Applications, Oracle, interacted with Muqbil Ahmar (DC), Executive Editor, dynamicCIO and offered insights on the massive scale and complexity of the COVID-19 vaccine’s distribution. With over 28 years of experience in supply chain management solutions, Kayal outlined the four critical key steps of the vaccine’s journey.

DC: The vaccination for COVID-19 has started. Do you think that Indian infrastructure is ready to supply the vaccine across the country?

HK: India has the world’s largest and most successful immunisation system of the world. So, we do not have to start from scratch. However, inoculating the whole population is a completely different ball game altogether for any country. No one has seen or supervised any operation of this scale ever. No one knows exactly what needs to be expected and to be ready for. We all are talking about cold chain logistics, cold storage points and e-Certificates etc, but something completely unexpected can happen. And we need to be ready for that eventuality as well. Since, some of the countries have also already started the process of vaccination, we need to closely observe the situation and need to tweak our own infrastructure accordingly. To answer your question, right now, every country including India has a long way to go to be ready to supply the vaccine.

DC: What are the various challenges you see that Indian supply chain faces, right now?

HK: India has some unique challenges like cold chain infrastructure. In India’s climate, especially during the summer, keeping the vaccine under the required temperature will be a huge impediment and then to deliver the vaccine in every nook and corner of a huge country like ours is another challenge. We will have to make sure that there is no pilferage, no hoarding and above all no counterfeiting of the vaccine. Even in the administration stage, we have to make sure that the vaccine is administered in a fair, scientific and well planned manner, as the vaccine will be a double dose shot. All these challenges get multiplied, if there is a call back of the vaccines, for that eventuality, we need to keep the reverse supply chain in place. Every step of the supply chain is fraught with unique and first of their kind challenges – be it infrastructure, humanitarian, technological or economical.

DC: From the point of view of technology, what should be three top most aspects that need to be put in place for a secure and safe supply chain?

HK: Top three aspects will be end to end visibility, collaboration and agility. There has to be end to end visibility into the whole supply chain, with no silos of information and agility to make the changes quickly in case of any eventuality. There cannot be any lag between these three aspects and the information flow has to be on a real time basis. With multiple players working together, there is a high chance of errors because of human latency. A pre-built, end to end integrated SaaS applications with all the capabilities of modern technologies like IoT and blockchain, that offer visibility, traceability, security, immutability, and trusted relationship among partners, can bring down this chance to almost zero. These SaaS applications are easily configured and made for easy adoption for participating members and stakeholders. The cloud application helps to address the challenges of managing complexities at a very high level. The IoT and blockchain applications with built-in Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) and collaborative capabilities across the Supply Chain Platform help to gain efficiencies for supply chain management by enabling multi-tier visibility across a supply chain. Once the network is configured and activated, supply chain managers can detect issues by defining rules in smart contracts that trigger alerts, warnings, or even take automated corrective actions and thus making the whole supply chain safe and secure.

DC: How do you think technology can play an important role in the whole process of picking up the vaccine from the factory till the arm of the receiver?

HK: A chain of custody will need to be maintained at every step of the supply chain – to ensure a verifiable transcript of the vaccine’s lifecycle and journey. Considering the exceptionally high demand of the vaccine, every dose will need to be tracked and verified to ensure that there is no counterfeiting.

Blockchain can help us with this aspect. Blockchain offers a way to record transactions on a distributed ledger for security, transparency, and accuracy. The tamperproof nature of blockchain enables all parties in a supply chain network to record transactions at each stage of the product’s journey, and is a powerful tool to prevent real doses being replaced by counterfeits along the pharmaceutical supply chain.

With advanced technology such as sensors and Internet-connected (Internet of Things or IoT) devices, we can detect if a delivery driver transporting the vaccine attempted a pass-off on the side of the road. A sensor mounted on a delivery truck can show when a truck stops or detect the door opening. That data is then recorded on the blockchain ledger, which would flag an issue with the shipment. This use case of blockchain and IoT technology along with AI/Ml capabilities underneath would prevent ineffective counterfeit products being administered to the population and prevent real doses from being sold (at a premium) on the black market.

Determining the sites for administration of the vaccine will be another huge challenge. In an effort to administer the vaccine at the first available opportunity, databases of healthcare and frontline workers and procurement of syringes and needles among other items need to be in place. All data crunching of this magnitude can only be done with the help of modern technology. The technologies like AI, machine learning and automation through a seamlessly integrated supply chain application can help in projecting in some way how the process of vaccination is going.

As it’s logistically impossible to vaccinate everybody in the first wave, distributors will need to develop standalone strategies for multiple waves. With many companies still relying on decades-old technology, the distribution of the vaccine will witness a never seen before level of demand and complexity. The aging back-office systems that many logistics companies are relying on are not capable of managing the scale and complexity of the task at hand. This is why many organizations are turning to flexible and scalable SaaS applications for supply chain and re-architecting their operations to be able to leverage innovative technologies like AI, IoT and Blockchain to improve efficiency.

DC: As a technology expert, what is your assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on the world?

HK: The pandemic has changed the world in many ways. The most profound change is the use of technology in our daily lives. When 2020 started, we never had thought that we will be spending most of the year indoors and using technology in almost all the aspects of our life be it – education, work, shopping, banking, trading, medical consultations and much more. Our factories, hospitals have changed. With lesser human intervention, the robots are helping in keeping the proverbial electricity on. With the lockdown opening, I do not think that we will go back to the pre-pandemic ways of our life. The amalgamation of technology in our daily work life or personal life is almost permanent and will change but it will not end.

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