With multiple variants of a vaccine for COVID-19 on the brink of approval and manufacturing, concerns are arising about the ability of supply chains to distribute hundreds of millions of doses quickly and safely to healthcare providers throughout the country. In this conversation with SupplyChainBrain Editor-in-Chief Bob Bowman, Jason Kelley, General Manager of IBM Blockchain Solutions, discusses the hurdles that must be surmounted, and some potential solutions that are already at hand.
SCB: What’s the biggest challenge that distributors face in getting a COVID-19 vaccine to market at scale and very quickly?
Kelley: You hit on two of the underlying components in your question: at scale and quickly. It’s not just about the movement of goods, it’s manufacturing, logistics, transportation, all the way to healthcare professionals. And the containers have to be kept at very low temperatures — 80 degrees F or so below zero for some type of the vaccine.
SCB: What about physical infrastructure? We're hearing that there isn't enough cold storage out there in warehouses and trucks, to handle something like 300 million doses over the coming year.
Kelley: There are refrigeration units needed. But there are also vials, caps to those vials, and syringes. There’s a broader value chain that needs visibility. Do we have those refrigeration units? Are they properly located? We need to make sure we have positive, real-time tracking of those assets.
SCB: What’s the solution to that?
Kelley: Instead of having someone go around and touch each unit, it makes more sense for it to be digital rather than physical. The technology gives you trust and transparency — a true chain of custody. I'm sure you've heard how much of our current vaccines go to waste in the last mile because they're not stored properly. Sometimes that's not found out until after the fact. We don't have time for that mistake. How can we make sure that we have visibility and trust at each step of the value chain, down to the customer/citizen experience? [One of the potential vaccines] requires two injections. If you get one and miss the call for the second, then you have to start over. At the required scale, a cold chain like this hasn’t been done before.
SCB: That being the case, what kinds of past experiences, initiatives or pilots can you draw on that can guide us in this current time?
Kelley: One of our examples dates back almost three years. It was a solution that we initially delivered with Walmart, around food trust. We were looking at leafy greens and vegetables within their stores. They had been taking seven days to track and trace food. That meant that if there was a foodborne illness scare, they were a going to have to throw away seven days’ worth of product, because food is assumed guilty until proven innocent — same as with a vaccine. So to get transparency from the beginning of the value chain to the end, to point of sale, they put it on blockchain. And seven days went down to a world-class 2.2 seconds. That has now evolved into an entire food trust network that has continued to grow. They’re handling almost 25 million transactions across tens of thousands of products across multiple geographies. The technology exists and is working at scale.
SCB: Do you believe that blockchain is mature enough to be operating beyond pilots, in everyday actual situations?
Kelley: Yes, absolutely — blockchain in combination with other capabilities. You can't sell a bucket of blockchain. You can't just slap it on a process. This is a collaborative effort across the value chain, truly a team sport. And blockchain by itself won't get it done. When you’re talking about intelligent workflows, it requires a combination of technology, people, and looking at business processes through a different light.
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