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Challenges and Opportunities to Expand the COVID19 Vaccine Supply Chain: A Global Summit

Over the last two days, I had the honor of attending a virtual C19 Global Supply Chain and Manufacturing Summit, hosted by COVAX, CEPI, DCVMN, IFPMA, and BIO.  The speakers included a critical number of major vaccine manufacturers, suppliers, government agencies, and NGOs.  The summit was hosted by Chatham House, which of course ensured that the Chatham House Rules were kept for the entire summit.  Here are a few key insights that provide some clues as to what the future of the COVID vaccine supply chain will look like.

In 2021, we began to develop vaccines at lightning speed, so the manufacturing processes were not optimized and led to shortfalls and stutters in delivery, which has put stress on governments to impact populations that are sick of the pandemic.  This is an unprecedented ramp-up of production capacity across every available technology – which has put stress on upstream suppliers, which has put stress on manufacturers.  We have seen spot shortages consumables and other items in the supply chain, which could  impact other critical medical products beyond vaccines.  To meet their demand, governments have started to put in export controls to store up their supplies.

We are moving more and more towards a collective future, as when one country is exposed to the virus, we are all exposed.  As such, all countries are collectively entrusted to try to bring vaccines to the world.  But we face extraordinary problems on how to elicit the maximum efficiency to produce more than 14.5 B vaccines per year, in a supply chain designed to produce no more than 5 B a year.  The world has demonstrated unprecedented cooperation to initiate the largest mass vaccination program in its history.  The problems we address pale in comparison to what we have done to date, but are problems nevertheless.

Several problems exist with respect to the global vaccine production supply chain, which is a problem of the global commons, a term used in one of our previous discussions on the PPE shortage.  Everyone in the scientific community has come together to undertake the number of efforts, producing 300 vaccine developments underway, but this has placed stress on our commons system.  A takeaway from this summit was the shared recognition of the fragility of current supply chains and how they could fail.  We are already seeing spot shortages both for COVID vaccine supplies and other critical medical products and we can’t let that happen.  There exists a shared recognition that, for us to emerge from a pandemic, there will need to be increased manufacturing capacity during a period when our supply chains are already stressed and cannot make accurate demand forecasts.  Three important themes came out of the meeting:

  1. We are building capacity and need to build it for the future while thinking of sustainable solutions for our newfound problems. We need to increase supplier capacity to meet sharp spikes in demand and new ways of doing business. We have innovated in our response to the pandemic and have devised new approaches in terms of regulatory review and, on the legal side, an indemnification and no-fault compensation mechanism for the 92 countries getting COVAX. These innovations should be leveraged for future pandemic preparedness.
  2. Better information is needed in the supply chain as a lack of information is creating a lot of our problems. Manufacturers need to know where supplies can be found as well as the durability of demand, and we need to work around the problem of the global commons, around transparency and information sharing.  Many private companies have concerns about openly sharing information, but we have to engage a collective action to get out of the pandemic as quickly as possible.
  3. Related to that, there were many discussions on collaborative frameworks and what we need from our regulators in terms of harmonization to enable a global rapid response and mfg. capacity and flexibility. Countries need to collaborate around trade and free flow and prevent export controls.  Partnerships are an important part of the discussion to speed up technology transfer.  Some companies mentioned having a technology transfer time move from 18 months to 6 months.  There was discussion around match making, common labeling systems, and other types of standardization to make tradeoff decisions, not being made behind closed doors.  Through these collaborative frameworks, there is an opportunity to accelerate delivery of vaccines and capacity expansion through organizations such as COVAX and others, which will become models and may become a basis for an ongoing capability.

The SCRC is continuing to work with interested parties to explore some of the solutions to these problems.