Almost eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the question now shifts from measures that prevent infection to measures that promote immunity from the virus. With the government seemingly pinning most of its hopes on the availability of a vaccine against the disease rather than on more proactive measures to limit infection rates, we might as well make sure that we get that one right.
The government, of course, is no stranger to mass immunization programs, and we trust the expertise gained from previous efforts would come in handy for when we are able to procure and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine.
Still, it is a gargantuan undertaking, and especially with a disease that has almost paralyzed the whole country (and the world), all measures must be taken to make sure that this vaccine reaches everyone at the right time, in the best condition, and at the best cost to the nation. Yes, they’re supply chain questions—and as supply chain professionals, we can’t help but ask them, if only as reminders of what should be in place.
Are we getting the right vaccines for the right price? With many manufacturers racing to produce a vaccine, we have to be absolutely certain the vaccine we choose to buy is the right one. The government must put science at the forefront of the decision-making to ensure the effectiveness of the vaccine—we don’t want a repeat of the Dengvaxia scandal, which would complicate our recovery in the long run.
Putting science ahead will also make sure we are getting the most bang for our buck—it is taxpayers’ money which will pay for this, after all. (The Bayanihan to Recover as One Act has allotted P10 billion for the purchase of the vaccines; an additional P2.5 billion will come from the 2021 budget.) There must be even greater transparency in the procurement process, considering the greater interest in this government purchase than perhaps any other. We must ensure that whatever vaccine we choose for our people is chosen based on the facts, and not on political or personal considerations.
How will we distribute and store the vaccine? A prudent supply chain strategy will ensure that the vaccine reaches its intended destination in the best condition—something even more critical for pharmaceutical products. Making sure the vaccine is quickly cleared through the ports—we’re importing, as we don’t have the capability to produce one ourselves, at least not yet—is easy. Distributing it would be more difficult; you can’t just transport medicines in any truck. This requires a strong cold chain distribution network: specialized vehicles, specialized warehouses, specialized expertise.
In an interview with the Philippine Star last month, Cold Chain Association of the Philippines president Anthony Dizon said there may not be enough available cold chain capacity to accommodate the vaccines. Most of our available space is dedicated to storing food products (and when he spoke for our Supply Chain Outlook event early last year he suggested that current capacity isn’t even satisfying all food demand).
The Department of Health has said it is looking to import the vaccines in bulk, to be sent to “fill and finish” facilities which will “break” gallons of the vaccine into vials—but there are only a few such facilities in the country. The government can choose to import the vaccine in vial form (which will be more expensive), but then, there isn’t enough warehouse space anyway.
There has long been a cold chain gap in the Philippine supply chain sector. While there are some players, we aren’t able to attract a lot of investment on this front, mostly because of high capital and operational expenses, including specialized equipment and high electricity costs. The government and the private sector have been looking at this in recent years, in a bid to improve food security especially during disasters; the COVID-19 pandemic, I imagine, has accelerated this timeline. But with newly named “vaccine czar” Carlito Galvez Jr. proposing a vaccination program as early as May 2021, the capacity may not come in on time.
How do we guarantee that everyone gets the vaccine? Think of this as the “last mile” part of the supply chain. With people still anxious about going out and into crowds, how do we guarantee that we can vaccinate everyone safely? Should we go to where the shots are, or should the shots go to our homes? Do we have the right people—and enough of them—to implement the inoculation? (Our health system has, after all, strained under the surge of coronavirus cases on top of other health concerns. I’m not sure we can hand off all this to the military, like the president insists.)
More importantly, how can we make sure everyone, regardless of class, status or past history, has access to the vaccine? In this instance, we cannot really choose our customers; it’s a vaccine purchased to benefit all Filipinos. So, we have to put everyone’s behaviors into account when mapping out our distribution strategies.
We did say there are a lot of questions. We hope the government is ready for what is essentially a massive, nationwide supply chain operation, one where lives are at stake and time is of the essence. More importantly, we hope that all of us get this right, as this could hasten our economic recovery and our return to some sense of normality.
Upcoming events: Once again, SCMAP supports the Asian Logistics, Maritime and Aviation Conference, co-organized by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, happening on November 17-18. This time it’s all online: visit almac.hk for more information. Also, our online event series SCMAP Live returns on November 26—more details soon at scmap.org.
Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications director of SCMAP, and editor-in-chief of its official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.