A vaccine doesn't mean the pandemic is over

  • We haven' yet experienced an entire season with influenza and circulating at full force. 
  • The United States needs an estimated 850 million more syringes to distribute both coronavirus and seasonal influenza vaccines.
  • To wipe out the coronavirus, addressing shortfalls in the vaccine supply chain must be a top priority.
  • Purushottam Meena, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Operations Management in the School of Management at New York Institute of Technology. 
  • This is an column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, thinks that drug companies may develop a COVID-19 vaccine before year's end.  

But that doesn't mean the pandemic will be over. Far from it.

Distributing hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will pose an enormous challenge, and our country's medical supply chain — responsible for producing, transporting, and delivering crucial equipment and treatments nationwide — is already overwhelmed. 

From shortages of life-saving medical devices to logistical obstacles, the United States is woefully unprepared — especially since the upcoming flu season will complicate the rollout of any such vaccine. Dismantling these roadblocks in the supply chain is the only way to end this pandemic.

With the oncoming flu season, essential medical materials will be in short supply

COVID-19 cases started soaring in the United States in mid-March, as the 2019-2020 flu season was winding down. We haven't yet experienced an entire season with influenza and the coronavirus both circulating at full force. 

A concurrent surge without adequate preparation would be a disaster — for patients, providers, and the supply chain. COVID-19 and the flu both cause similar respiratory symptoms. Hospitals and ICUs experienced severe shortages of critical supplies toward the beginning of the pandemic, forcing states to compete for life-saving resources like ventilators and respirators. Given that hundreds of thousands of Americans are hospitalized with the flu each year, an influx of more patients with similar needs could create even larger demand for equipment that's already in short supply. 

Stopping this impending surge will require an adequate number of flu vaccines, more supplies, closely monitored delivery, and more funding — all of which the vaccine supply chain already struggles with. 

Even before COVID-19, there were limited reserves of the medical-grade glass used to make vaccine vials. The glass contains a specific composition of chemicals, which makes it more resistant to temperature changes and helps keep vaccines stable. It takes days or weeks to melt and mold it into the necessary vials.  

The syringes used to inject inoculations are also running low. The United States needs an estimated 850 million more syringes to distribute both coronavirus and seasonal influenza vaccines. As of May, it only had 15 million syringes stockpiled, and the current efforts to close that gap are not very reassuring. Though the Department of and Human Services has contracted with several companies to manufacture 820 million more syringes, only 420 million will be available by the end of the year, according to reporting from USA Today.

Keeping vaccines cold enough during transportation poses another challenge

Beyond the scarcity of materials, there are shortcomings within the "cold chain" for vaccines. The cold chain is a section of the supply chain that requires temperature control. It's a necessary component of the transportation process for a number of different goods — ranging from ice cream to insulin. 

Vaccines have to be kept at a constant, cool temperature, typically between 35 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, even when transported across the country. Outside of this range, they lose their potency and must be thrown away. Many of the COVID-19 vaccines in development may require even cooler temperatures — dipping as low as negative 112 degrees Fahrenheit — making cold chain transportation even more challenging. 

While there have been advances in technology used to refrigerate in-transit vaccines, mistakes still happen far too easily. It only takes one trucking leg or storage facility that isn't temperature-controlled to spoil an entire batch. 

If there's any hope in preventing vaccine shortages and the havoc that would wreak on our nation's health care system, these issues must be addressed.

Fortunately, our political leaders can help — and already are

The US has entered into contracts with multiple private companies like SiO2 and Corning, allowing them to expand their manufacturing capacities and make more medical-grade vials. Fostering more of these longstanding partnerships between government and private commercial enterprises would help alleviate roadblocks in the vaccine supply chain by preventing shortages of crucial materials, long before those supplies are needed. 

The government could also rethink how it allocates vaccines. Typically, flu vaccines are distributed based on ' and states' populations. But this approach doesn't reflect the share of the population that is willing to actually get the vaccine. When the uptake rate in a population is low, unused vaccines accumulate. Health officials should take historical uptake rates into account to prevent surpluses in some regions and shortages in others.  

Even still, these changes won't help without a more streamlined cold chain transportation process. New temperature-controlled delivery technologies can prove expensive. But making simple changes — like limiting handoff points, consolidating shipments, and monitoring the temperature of shipments in real-time — can mitigate damages to scarce vaccine supplies. 

Developing an effective COVID-19 vaccine is merely the beginning of the end of this pandemic. To wipe out the virus, lawmakers need to address shortfalls in the vaccine supply chain. 

Purushottam Meena, Ph.D., is an associate professor of operations management in the School of Management at New York Institute of Technology. 

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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