Robert Eubanks, director of healthcare and life sciences with West Monroe, discuses the changes in how vaccines and drug therapies are developed and distributed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How will the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry produce and distribute an estimated 1 billion doses of vaccine in 2021? “There are a lot of challenges associated with that,” Eubanks says. Traditionally, a generation of vaccines would be developed over a 10-year lifecycle. But the application of a new technique, employing messenger RNA instead of dead versions of the targeted virus, can reduce that period to approximately one year. “We’ll probably start seeing clinical trials in the next couple of months,” Eubanks says.
The new technology holds tremendous promise, but it also comes with complications, especially in the area of logistics. Chief among them is the need to store and transport the vaccine in extremely cold conditions, between negative 80 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. While a cold chain exists for current types of drugs and other perishables, “we don’t have the infrastructure built out for that,” Eubanks says.
The need to speed would seem to suggest a short distance between manufacturing and the end user. Eubanks says the industry will probably engage in some domestic production, but it’s not likely to abandon offshore sourcing in a dramatic fashion. Over the last few decades, the drug industry has increasingly turned to low-cost countries such as China for a considerable portion of its products. The risks inherent in that trend became all too obvious with the advent of the pandemic, but alternatives to China will be sought in India, Southeast Asia and Europe, with limited production facilities in North America. COVID-19 has driven home the need “to start factoring in risk over landed cost,” Eubanks says.
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