What Does It Take to Distribute a Vaccine?

The global race to develop a working coronavirus vaccine is heating up. The first country to cross the finish line will enjoy a position of global prominence. They will likely vaccinate the local population first, helping the country recover from economic recession as quickly as possible. The winning country can then lease this vaccine to other nations for a profit, resulting in a massive payday.

But what does it take to get a vaccine to market?

There are dozens of vaccines in development across the globe, and many of them have a connection to the U.S. The White House is spending billions of dollars on projects and products that may not even work, but experts agree that it’s best to get as many potential vaccines in the pipeline as possible in case one should fail. Just this week, biotech company Moderna announced that initial trials of its vaccine so far look promising.

Let’s look at all the work that goes into producing and distributing a vaccine. We can start addressing these challenges ahead of time to make sure the country can get vaccinated in a timely manner when a working product becomes available.

The Reality of Distributing a Vaccine

When President Trump first announced what’s known as Operation Warp Speed, he said “When a vaccine is ready, the U.S. government will deploy every plane, truck, and soldier required to help distribute it to the American people as quickly as possible.”

The military or National Guard will likely be involved in the distribution process. They have helped build temporary hospitals and testing facilities amid the pandemic, and their work will likely continue. The distribution pipeline will likely piggyback off the existing flu vaccine system. Every year, the healthcare industry needs to release a new flu vaccine. For the 2019-2020 season, manufacturers have projected they will provide as many as 162 to 169 million doses of influenza vaccine to the U.S. market.

Just like the flu vaccine, the one for the coronavirus will be produced by a private company. The U.S. will then likely give money or resources to the company to expedite the process.

However, unlike the flu vaccine, there is no “season” for the coronavirus. Most years, influenza tends to spike during December and January. The coronavirus pandemic could worsen during the winter months, but everyone will want to get vaccinated as soon as possible when a product becomes available. This makes it much harder to predict when the vaccination process will take place. The government has floated the idea of rolling immunization protocols, so companies can create a schedule for testing and vaccinating their employees.

To distribute the vaccine, health officials will need accurate information regarding the spread of the coronavirus, including the number of existing cases, transmission rates, as well as demographics of the local population. Studies show the flu vaccine is often distributed at a wide range of locations, including private sector offices, worksites, clinics, hospitals, health departments, retail settings, and senior centers. The same will likely be true of the coronavirus vaccine.

Health providers tend to use a variety of channels when ordering the flu vaccine. Some may go through the state health department, others may order directly from the manufacturer or a local distributor. This can lead to varying delivery dates. To expedite the process, the U.S. will need a single point of contact for distributing the vaccine, so all shipments go out on time and as expected.

Who’s First in Line?

During a pandemic, it’s safe to assume that essential workers will be the first in line for vaccination, including healthcare workers, emergency response teams, government leaders, and members of the military or National Guard. These people are responsible for making sure everyone else gets vaccinated, so they need to be at the top of the list.

As soon as they receive their first vaccine, some facilities will start by administering it to all onsite staff members. They will then coordinate with local officials to get to non-essential workers throughout the community. More urban areas may have to prioritize treatment for those most at risk of dying of the disease, including the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Nursing home residents and hospital patients will also be first in line.

What About Misinformation?

There’s bound to be more than one working vaccine on the market at the same time. However, these products may have varying degrees of success. For example, one vaccine may prove to work 85% of the time, while another may only work 60% of the time, especially if the coronavirus starts to mutate.

This could lead to all kinds of confusion. Consumers may be confused in terms of which vaccine is better, while others try to get vaccinated at the lowest possible price. Some patients may be more resistant to infection than others, leading to a patchwork of immunity.

The U.S. will need a reliable point of contact for administering any information about a vaccine, so the public can stay informed. Regulators also need to keep their eyes out for fraudulent or copycat pills that could make their way to market.

Up until now, vaccinating the U.S. has largely been a private sector endeavor. The CDC and other government agencies do not have the authority to control this process. The government can only do so much to speed up the distribution process when a vaccine becomes available.

We will have to depend on a private company when this day finally arrives. It’ll be up to frontline health workers and facility leaders to make sure their patients have access to the drug and the right information.

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