Three Ways to Make Supply Chain Work for Your Immunization Program

April 23rd, 2021 | Viewpoint

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The growth of immunization programs is placing an unprecedented strain on immunization supply chains around the world, many of which are unreliable, inefficient, and poorly performing. Supply chains must be resilient and flexible. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout around the world has only reaffirmed this. 

As immunization programs expand with the introduction of new vaccines, there are a number of important things to consider. New target populations different from the usual “under-one” age groups, new vaccine technologies including improved cold chain equipment (CCE), and the role of the supply chain to ensure vaccines are available when and where they are needed are more critical than ever. Here are three things to consider when strengthening immunization supply chains to plan for a new vaccine.

1. Immunization supply chains (iSC) consist of more than just cold chain equipment.

Of course, iSCs require cold chain equipment to ensure vaccines are kept at their ideal temperature range. However, they also build on many components including personnel, data, transportation for distribution, information management systems, financial flows and management, demand planning, and standard operating procedures. As we have seen during the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in an emergency situation, ensuring adequate supply chain planning and management across all components is crucial to the timely and efficient delivery of the vaccine.

2. Leverage existing iSC systems and equipment when planning for a new vaccine.

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine builds on the current routine immunization systems in any country, leveraging existing iSCs and CCE. Many countries prioritized the COVID-19 vaccines that required the standard 2-8 degrees for cold chains since that is the infrastructure already available to them. There are widespread capacity challenges in cold chain systems, largely at the regional level, but some at the national level. As a new CCE is being procured for the COVID-19 vaccine, countries must also strengthen their overall cold chain systems through hiring more skilled technicians to maintain the equipment, spare parts, updating and actively maintaining an inventory of both equipment and spare parts, and health workers for service delivery and vaccine administration as the CCE expands to new areas. Each of these things must be considered when planning for a new vaccine.

3. Effective iSCs are flexible and adaptable.

While COVID-19 has brought to light some challenges in the supply chain, it has also shown flexibility in supply chain design and management, with shifting delivery frequencies and distribution routing to accommodate the varied arrivals of vaccines. Countries are being innovative in their response to unexpected delays and supply shortages. The nature of the COVID-19 vaccine as an emergency response to a global outbreak means shared cooperation with the private sector, with potential for renting of cold chain space or private transportation for distribution, or links to non-Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) government departments to use their cold chain space and transport vehicles.

The COVID-19 pandemic, response, and new vaccine development and rollout have brought many valuable lessons learned as we prepare for emerging diseases, new vaccines, and how to maximize immunization supply chains and cold chain systems.

Written by: Wendy Prosser

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