Delivering a Miracle: Overcoming the Supply Chain Challenges of Manufacturing and Distributing the COVID-19 Vaccines


By Sara Pearson Specter

Before the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus was declared a pandemic by The World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, pharmaceutical companies and governments worldwide were already creating plans to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines to the global population.

Within two months, the U.S. had announced the formation of Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to facilitate and accelerate the production of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. With it came an initial $10 billion as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, funding production of multiple vaccines by several pharmaceutical companies; effectively doubling down on the hope that several contenders would prove both safe and effective—and available by January 2021.

Yet, no vaccine in history had ever been developed anywhere near as fast as the goal of 10 months. In fact, a typical vaccine development cycle—determining the virus’ genetic sequence, identifying potential antigens that might prevent the resulting disease, lab testing to determine if an immune response occurs, adapting the vaccine candidate for greater efficacy, submitting an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for testing on humans, three phases of human trials, and final FDA review and approval for use—lasts up to 10 years. Until now, the shortest amount of time ever for a vaccine to be developed was the four years it took to create the mumps vaccine, released in 1967.

The supply chain challenges were daunting. But, as it turns out, not insurmountable.

As we all know, the first two viable vaccines—one developed by pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer in partnership with German biotech company BioNTech and a second developed by Moderna—received emergency use authorization from the FDA on December 11, 2020 and December 18, 2020, respectively. Within days, vaccines were making their way across the U.S. for distribution based on local and regional prioritization plans. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine received emergency authorization on February 27.

Of course, there were (and continue to be) bumps along the way. In tracing the hyper-accelerated, 10-month process of creating brand-new COVID-19 vaccines while simultaneously implementing supply chains for their manufacturing, distribution, and transport, MHI Solutions has identified the challenges as well as the countermeasures that successfully overcame them.

Notably, many of the strategies that helped pave the way for the delivery of what has been called “a miracle” are those that had already been honed, deployed and leveraged by supply chain practitioners for decades.

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