In the News and Trending: Where’s My Vaccine?

Whitman Professor Leads Webinar of Experts to Explain COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chains

“In the News and Trending” includes the perspectives of accomplished Whitman professors on timely issues impacting business. Stated wording and opinions are those of the author.

Burak Kazaz is the Steven Becker Professor of Supply Chain Management at the Whitman School of Management, Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence for Syracuse University and director for the Brethen Operations Management Institute

The Whitman School hosted a webinar on the COVID-19 vaccine supply chains on Feb. 16, 2021. Burak Kazaz, the Steven R. Becker Professor of Supply Chain Management and Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, served as the moderator and a panelist. Guest panelists included Syra Madad, a nationally recognized public health leader and epidemiologist in infectious disease and special pathogen preparedness and response, and Dr. Prashant Yadav, professor of operations management at INSEAD, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a fellow of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy. Yadav has worked extensively on health product supply chains and has been advising multiple groups on COVID-19 manufacturing and distribution operations.

The webinar delved into the burning question that has been occupying public debates: Where are our vaccines?

This question is important because at the time of this webinar only 8% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated with two doses, while only 16% have received the first inoculation. The necessary amount of vaccination to create public immunization is a long time coming. Two manufacturers, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, have been granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration for several months and recently Johnson & Johnson received a EUA for a single dose vaccine. A fourth manufacturer, Novavax, is gearing up for another EUA application. With several options, why is the U.S. population not completely vaccinated despite having multiple vaccine developers?

To better understand the answer, Kazaz explained how a vaccine is manufactured. “There is a long production and distribution process for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines,” Kazaz says. Both of these manufacturers employ a messenger RNA (or mRNA) method. In the case of Pfizer/BioNTech, the DNA of the virus is produced in the company’s Chesterfield, Missouri, plant, which is then snipped into RNA in Andover, Massachusetts, and later covered with lipids and filled into vials in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Even though the entire production cycle is reduced from 110 days to approximately 60 days, vaccine manufacturing is still a time-consuming process. Pfizer can manufacture 2 billion doses of vaccines, while Moderna can add another 1.5 billion doses.

The steps after manufacturing further complicate the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Kazaz explained that the distribution requires special conditions. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for example, must be stored and shipped in ultra-cold conditions (minus 70 to 80 Fahrenheit).

During the webinar, Kazaz showed the shipping boxes designed by Pfizer in order to maintain the vaccine in the required temperatures. Even though Moderna also uses a mRNA method, its vaccine can be stored and shipped in regular refrigerated conditions. McKesson, a highly-experienced medical products distributor, has been granted permission by Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership initiated by the U.S. government, to accelerate the COVID-19 vaccine and to carry out the distribution of Moderna vaccines. In essence, the two vaccines use the same production method and yet differ completely in distribution requirements.

During the webinar, Yadav, one of the most-renowned experts in global-health product supply chains, explained that each of these manufacturers uses “dedicated plants” to manufacture vaccines, so each plant is only making one kind of the vaccine. He pointed out that many global health products are subcontracted to experienced third-party manufacturers. For example, the Moderna vaccine is manufactured by a well-known health product manufacturer, Lonza, located in Switzerland.

“Flexible manufacturing capacities are essential, especially when vaccine manufacturers employ similar production methods, as in the case of Moderna and Pfizer,” Yadav explains. Sharing production platforms reduces the need to build new factories for each vaccine manufacturer.

Yadav indicated that public-private partnerships can help expediate building capacity. He emphasized the importance of providing financial support, as in the case of Operation Warp Speed and the funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in order to build sufficient manufacturing capacity that would satisfy socially optimal levels of the vaccine. And, he further iterated the need to build capacity sufficient enough to immunize not only the population in the U.S. but also around the globe. Yadav described alternative financial instruments that can incentivize manufacturers to build capacity, including capacity and sales subsidies, concessional loans and volume guarantees provided to vaccine developers as advance commitments.

Madad, a recipient of the J.V. Irons Award for Scientific Excellence for her contributions to the Ebola outbreak preparedness in the state of Texas, is one of a handful of leaders featured in a recent Netflix docuseries called Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. The documentary follows the leaders who prepare the world for potential outbreaks and was recorded and produced before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madad outlined the efforts involved in monitoring pathogens, including the mutations and variants of the virus, while describing her role in the state of New York’s preparedness for such pandemics. More critically, she explained the widely observed variants known as B.117 (also referred to as the U.K. variant), P.1 (Brazil) and B.1.351 (South Africa), as well as the threats they pose to global public health. Madad provided data sources for these variants, while describing how a specific mutation known as K417N is more persistent in attaching to human cells than other variants. She urged the public to continue to practice safety and referred to a chart that describes the benefits of wearing masks, keeping a distance and avoiding the three C’s: crowded places, close contact settings and confined/enclosed spaces.

At the end of the webinar, the panelists stressed that universities like the Whitman School must contribute to future preparedness by building a global long-term talent pool of undergraduate and graduate students. They must also create a culture where students can develop a passion for public service and consider not just supply chain areas of consumer products or e-commerce but also a career in areas of supply chain that successfully impact health at the local, national or global levels.