Vaccine Distribution Plan: A Lesson in Operations Management

Vaccine distribution promises to be the silver bullet that stops the spread of Covid and ends the pandemic. But the distribution of Covid vaccines is just one step in a complex supply chain. Packaging, transporting, storing, and administering vaccines all represent stages of the process that create headaches at scale. The development of Covid vaccines was a roaring success. The deployment of those vaccines? Not so much – operational improvements are needed.

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Why Is There A Vaccine Shortage?

The US aimed to administer 20 million vaccines by the end of 2020. With all the effort that went into vaccine development, why did the actual number fall short of that timeline? The answer has to do with stages of the supply chain that surround actual vaccine distribution.
Take packaging for example. Vaccines are fragile products that require rubber stoppers and glass vials to be properly packaged. Confronted with enormous demand, Pfizer and Moderna currently face raw material shortages that affect their ability to produce doses.

Even if we can solve the raw materials problem, administering jabs post-distribution is tricky in and of itself. Despite pent-up demand, under 50% of distributed doses have made it into arms. This “last mile” problem stems from the stringent guidelines around who can get vaccinated. In contrast to high-velocity supply chains that focus on widespread demand, current distribution strategy in the US targets specific at-risk populations. This causes vaccine consumption to lag supply as non-priority individuals are forced to wait their turn.

Can Vaccine Distribution Actually Be Boosted?

If the stock market is any indication, consumers and corporations believe that vaccine distribution will improve. And there are a few reasons to be hopeful. First and foremost, the FDA expects to approve additional vaccines for use this spring. Two of the leading candidates, from J&J and Novavax, do not require the same ultra-cold storage temperatures as Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. More vaccines in the market should bump up the distribution timeline by spreading the production burden more evenly. Secondly, we are learning to mitigate mistakes related to the hyper-targeted distribution plan. The establishment of mass vaccination sites will make for easier vaccine access – first for priority individuals and then for the broader population. Lastly, improved data and analytics will ensure that individuals follow their vaccine dose schedule. Current tracking processes lack a sophisticated IT system, but awareness is growing around the importance of such a system.

The Nuts & Bolts of the Covid Vaccine Rollout

The Covid vaccine rollout needs a boost, but it did do some things right in 2020.

What Went Well

Superhuman speed to market. The typical time to make a vaccine (think smallpox or measles) can take anywhere from 2 to 5 years. Labs reduced the R&D step of the Covid vaccine process to mere months, and Covid vaccine stocks reaped the benefits. The government also “primed” the Covid vaccine supply chain well before the product was ready to hit shelves, so to speak. Companies readied production sites and earmarked doses for customers so that manufacturing could begin immediately following FDA approvals.

What Needs Improvement

Unfortunately, several things. In addition to issues already mentioned (raw materials, vaccine consumption, supplier burden), labor shortages and equitable access are notable hurdles. What kind of labor? In this case, labor refers to personnel involved in all aspects of vaccine distribution. Each dose of Covid vaccine that travels the supply chain comes with workers who need to handle that dose. Handlers, truckers, and of course, healthcare workers – these are supply chain jobs that take on risk. And at the moment, we may From an equitable access perspective, data show that currently, many black and brown communities cannot easily access the vaccine. This will be something the new administration must tackle.

What Can Covid Vaccines Tell Us About Supply Chains of the Future?

The operational science behind the Covid vaccine rollout highlights many issues that next-gen supply chains need to think about. To begin with, the human capital dependency of the vaccine distribution plan points to a shift towards AI and automation. Programmable robots will likely replace warehouses packed to the brim with assembly line workers. From there, agility will be the name of the game. The vaccine supply chain experiences shocks on a daily basis. The unpredictability of these shocks calls for nimble supply chain management that can shift resources and inventory around quickly.


There is understandably a lot of excitement around the Covid vaccines. Combined with measures like masks and distancing, mass vaccination may be the key to ending the pandemic. As we’ve outlined however, effective vaccine distribution requires supply chain discipline. Procurement of raw vaccine materials must be streamlined. Vaccine consumption must not lag vaccine distribution, and steps must be taken to keep up the supply of labor and ensure equitable vaccine access. The good news is that we learn more every day! The next-gen supply chain is taking shape, and lessons from this pandemic will carry forward into innovations of the future.

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Filed Under: business consulting, Consulting skills, Leadership & Management, management consulting, Operations Management