A look at the challenges and prospects for distributing millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months, with Julie Swann, Allison Distinguished Professor & Department Head of Industrial & Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University, and a member of INFORMS, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.
The news that Pfizer, Inc. and BioNTech SE have developed a vaccine that is 90% effective against the COVID-19 virus is a positive development. But the question of whether the drug can be effectively distributed on a national and international scale is another matter entirely. Swann says U.S. state and local health departments can look to what was done in response to the H1N1 virus outbreak in 2019, as a guide for getting the new vaccine into the hands of healthcare providers. But that effort involved only about 100 million doses, while the COVID-19 response will ultimately require the shipment of between 300 million and 500 million doses, raising questions about the industry’s ability to ramp up.
Distribution won’t take place all at once, Swann points out. Initially the vaccine will be administered to those who are most at risk of contracting the virus, such as healthcare workers and others on the front lines of coping with the disease. The effort will proceed in phases, occurring over a period of six to 12 months.
Uncertain at this point, however, is precisely where the vaccine will go. H1N1 was allocated to states on a population basis, Swann notes. Whether that will be the plan with the COVID-19 vaccine is yet to be determined. It’s difficult to target specific areas, where the virus may already have abated by the time the vaccine arrives. Still, says Swann, “on the whole, I think we can get the vaccine out there.”
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