How digital supply chains help global COVID-19 vaccination

Developing vaccines to help combat a global pandemic was a massive challenge. Perhaps an even larger task is distributing the vaccines around the world. Governments and health authorities must overcome significant supply chain and cold chain issues while addressing the risk of counterfeit vaccines.

To put the operation's size into perspective, around seven billion people need to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Most vaccines require two doses, and many of them have significant cold-chain requirements.

This is where the power of digitization and technologies, including digital supply chain management solutions, sensors to monitor temperatures in real-time, and blockchain, come into their own, ensuring that vaccines arrive at vaccination centers fit for use.

The Pfizer vaccine, for example, needs to be transported at temperatures as low as -70 degrees centigrade. This requires specialty shipment and cold-chain guarantees to ensure the vaccines are not damaged. At the same time, counterfeit and stolen vaccines sold on the dark web mustn't end up in the supply chain.

Supply chains must be fast and agile

According to Gartner, supply chain models must be "highly robust and agile enough to accommodate shifting variables." This includes being able to respond at speed to any emerging events and threats.

The final mile is a very high risk, especially at the country level, Gartner maintains. Success requires data communications, network capabilities, security, local regulatory, and trade management. At the same time, visibility, real-time communications, collaboration and digitalization are paramount to vaccine supply chains being responsive and agile.

"With even the most advanced level planning and foresight, supply chains will need to streamline and secure operations across vaccine lifecycles," advises the analyst firm.

For the vaccine program to be effective, vaccines must be widely available across the world. The UN-managed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative spearheads vaccine procurement and delivery to 92 low and lower-middle-income countries worldwide. UNICEF expects to transport 850 tons of COVAX vaccine per month, requiring an enormous joint effort by the supply chain and transportation industries.

Exploiting the power of data

Due to the vaccine shipments' sensitivity, technology plays a critical role throughout the supply chain, especially ensuring the vaccines are kept in the right conditions to be effective, notes the World Economic Forum.

IoT sensors, which are already being used successfully in biopharmaceutical logistics, can continuously check transit temperatures and flag any issues. Data generated can be analyzed to spot any fragility in supply chains.

The World Economic Forum doesn't believe there is a platform that exists that can provide real-time monitoring of the entire COVID-19 vaccination supply chain. Thus, adapting available systems will ultimately be the way forward. E-commerce platforms, it notes, can give insight into shipment visibility, smart routing and demand forecasting. Data-sharing platforms are available that can monitor potential risks, such as disruptions in supplies.

According to a recent report by DHL, COVID-19 has shown logistics specialists that real-time visibility is a critical asset in any pandemic response. DHL notes supply chain visibility is vital in government decision-making at the macro level, securing essential industries in a global health emergency and orchestrating transport. At the macro level, it is crucial to detect any early problems, such as shipping schedule issues.

This visibility, however, isn't easy to achieve due to the complexity of supply chains, the unwillingness of some data owners to share data, and the lack of data standardization and system interoperability. DHL advises that to achieve real-time data visibility, "a strong IT backbone and data-sharing mechanism must be established." This includes governments outlining precise data-capability requirements when selecting suppliers and logistics providers.

DHL recommends governments partner with private sector players to leverage their established IT infrastructures and enable features such as inventory management and disruption monitoring at scale.

How digital supply chains help global COVID-19 vaccination

Stopping counterfeit vaccines from entering the supply chain

As we all scramble for some normality in our lives, it is little surprise that cybercriminals are taking advantage of the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Check Point Software has noted a 400% increase in adverts for COVID vaccines on the Dark Web from December 2020. Prices have quadrupled to around $1,000 in bitcoins. Cybercriminals are also happy to accept bulk orders.

INTERPOL and U.S. Homeland Security have joined forces to warn the public of buying COVID-19 vaccines online. Recently, South African authorities seized hundreds of fake vaccine vials following an alert by INTERPOL.

Blockchain is becoming a powerful tool in stopping counterfeit vaccines from entering the supply chain. Blockchain-based solutions can be used to verify vaccines' provenance and authenticity and ensure the quality and integrity of supplies.

Blockchain has the advantages of being decentralized, anonymous and impenetrable. Each entry is individually encrypted, and any changes have to be made by all within the system. This provides accurate traceability, enhanced security and greater transparency.

Blockchain could be the perfect infrastructure for supply chain management platforms to manage COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. Why? Because no one owns the blockchain, it provides a standardized generic protocol and is immutable, meaning that data can't be deleted. It is also easy to manage the read/write capabilities on blockchains, making them efficient and reliable.

The World Economic Forum believes that blockchain could solve some of the most stubborn COVID-19 vaccine rollout logistics challenges, such as accuracy in tracking vaccine vials and combatting potential counterfeits. But it acknowledges there are hurdles to overcome, not in the technology itself, but in enlisting multiple players to take part in the solution.

Supply chain lessons for the future

COVID-19 will not be the last global health emergency to hit our planet, nor will supply chain complexity disappear. All stakeholders involved in distributing COVID-19 vaccines across the globe have learned that collaboration across all links in the supply chain, flexibility and agility are critical in getting people vaccinated as fast and as safely as possible.

The global health emergency has made organizations accept the fragility of their ecosystems. Critical gaps must be plugged to ensure end-to-end visibility globally and minimize the risk to business. Download the Orange Business whitepaper on real-time intelligence and the future of supply chains to learn more.