Normally, we devote our blog to information about our marking, coding, and packaging materials. But as we all know, the times we are living in are anything but “normal.” As the world waits anxiously for the Covid-19 vaccine, we thought we’d take a moment to address the question that’s weighing on everyone’s minds: Why is this taking so long?
Now, just to be clear, we are not handling any part of the vaccine rollout (although we can dream that one of our boxes or rolls of tape might make contact, somehow). However, as a supplier for some of the biggest distribution chains in the country, we feel that it’s not too off-topic to discuss this particular rollout. With no further ado, here are some of the top factors that are coming between you and your Covid vaccine.
Ingredient & equipment shortages
One of the main bottlenecks slowing the vaccine distribution happens at the very start of the process: a simple lack of ingredients. At the time of this writing, the FDA has approved three vaccines for emergency use, and two of the three (the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) require tough-to-source ingredients like mRNA-building plasmids, nucleotides, and enzymes. While it was easy for researchers to procure these components for their trial studies, the amount required to create millions of vaccines just isn’t in ready supply.
Another rather simple issue affecting production is a lack of equipment. According to Glenn Richey of Auburn University, many manufacturing facilities aren’t stocked with the amount of vials, syringes, and machinery they’ll need to create and move millions of vaccine doses. Like everyone else in what you will see is a very lengthy supply chain, vaccine manufacturers have no choice but to “build the airplane as it flies,” so to speak.
Challenges in making, storing, & shipping the vaccine
Even if a plant has everything it needs to make a vaccine, doing so isn’t as easy as mixing up a pot of soup on the stove. All three currently-authorized vaccines have long, complex, and risk-abundant manufacturing processes, with lots of potential for missteps (and therefore, wastage). The Pfizer vaccine, for instance, must be created in three separate phases at three different facilities, a process which takes several weeks to complete.
Once a batch of vaccines is made, distribution is complicated by their stringent refrigeration requirements. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius—colder than winter in Antarctica—while the Moderna and J&J vaccines must be stored at -20 degrees Celsius, the temperature of a normal freezer. Assembling the materials necessary for shipping this kind of product (like dry ice and specialized stay-cold containers) is a supply chain in and of itself, and executing a prompt delivery presents another hurdle.
If all this is starting to feel kind of depressing, keep in mind that things might not be as bad as they appear—literally. Some experts have noted that there can be a big delay in the time it takes for a vaccine to leave a distribution center and the time it takes for its use to be recorded, creating the false impression that huge amounts of vaccines are being wasted. Julie Swann, head of the Department of the Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State University, told Scientific American, “If you think, ‘Two days to ship, three days to give it out, and another two days to record that,’ there can easily be a week between when the government says it has been distributed, and when you can really expect to see that number [of administered doses] change correspondingly.” She added that internal issues like this are impeding distribution much more than factors like transportation.
Bottom line: The vaccines are coming
Again, learning about the complexities involved with distributing the Covid-19 vaccine may leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed—but it’s important to stay hopeful. Remember that everyone involved in this massive supply chain—from the manufacturers, to the shipping and delivery personnel, to the medical administrators—have a vested interest in executing the rollout as efficiently and safely as possible. The longer the rollout continues, the more experienced everyone in the supply chain will become, and the more smoothly everything will flow—an effect which you have surely experienced in your own working life. In the meantime, all we can do is sit back, remain positive, and trust that one day we’ll all be able to live mask-free once again.