Transforming Supply Chains at Warp Speed: High-Stakes COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

After months of anticipation, we all watched the first trucks leave the Pfizer distribution center in Portage, Michigan transporting the coronavirus vaccine to all parts of the country in carefully packed and environmentally monitored boxes under U.S. Marshall escort. We could not help but wonder how we could be sure there would not be a supply chain failure, and, if there was, would we know.

We listened to FedEx, UPS and Boyle Transportation executives talk about their unique security and safety measures without much insight into the details for competitive reasons. At the same time, skeptics espoused concerns about the safe transportation of a vaccine that requires storage of -100°F.

As the vaccine distribution begins, we anticipate there will be missteps — probably some big, and those will be well-publicized, but once we emerge from the pandemic, we will be left with capabilities that were developed and proven in months that would otherwise have taken years.

If ever there was the motivation for competing organizations to work together to optimize a supply chain while still preserving their independence and competitive advantage, it is now. We predict that they will do it at warp speed and that we will see fundamental changes in the way that technology is deployed to transparently manage supply chains.

Let’s look at some of the unique challenges of this supply chain.

  • The scale in the U.S. is unheard of and the vaccine is a valuable commodity that needs enhanced security throughout the supply chain.
  • There are many links in the chain – from trucks and logistics, all the way to local delivery vehicles and health care facilities – and no room for error. A failure anywhere puts lives at risk.
  • This chain is not owned or governed by one organization; it is supported by a diverse ecosystem across private and public entities – with varying levels of technology sophistication – that are unaccustomed to working together and exchanging mission-critical information.
  • The federal government has spent months planning for efficient distribution, but ultimately states and municipalities need to plan for and fund the “last mile”. This is bound to be done inconsistently.
  • Environmental factors, such as winter storms, will disrupt distribution and deliveries will need to be dynamically rerouted.

To address these challenges, supply chain participants will need to share accurate data in order to safely and effectively deliver the highest number of doses possible. While the cross-enterprise workflow technology exists, it is unproven even at modest scale. Blockchain has shown the potential to manage data reliably across a decentralized network, and IoT linked with smart contracts can track events as they occur. Add in machine learning and artificial intelligence and you can predict the bottlenecks, identify shrinkage and dynamically reroute based on defined protocols. And there are several software platforms that link disparate systems together to share, manage and verify data across platforms.

As we’ve extensively written at DSCI, the challenge of managing a cross-enterprise ecosystem is less about the technology and all about the governance.

Companies intuitively understand that cross-enterprise enabling technology has business advantages but have been unable to quantify the business case and have been reluctant to deal with the governance and competitive complexities. What we are witnessing today, with the distribution of vaccines, is disruptive change forcing companies to deal with these complexities in real-time. The recognition of the inherit value of cross-enterprise visibility and data exchange will fundamentally alter supply chains in 2021 and beyond.

-Shawn Muma, Technology Research Leader, CGE’s Digital Supply Chain Institute