COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution: Addressing Data Challenges

Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine is a logistical puzzle that teeters on a delicate structure of chemists, data scientists, freight drivers, healthcare professionals, distributors, state health departments, and policy makers. When even one of these pieces in the structure is imbalanced, the whole vaccine distribution tower could tumble. 

The U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized two vaccinations based on data findings from extensive clinical trials and manufacturers, which have been deemed safe for distribution and use under Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA). However, supply limitations and other pressing challenges have compounded the logistical complexities and contributed to the slow rollout and incomplete shipment of doses

With a projected 600 million vaccination doses required in the U.S and demand currently outweighing supply, a vaccination effort of this scale comes with risks and challenges across end-to-end vaccine distribution management. 

Data insights produced in this kind of dynamic, continuously evolving environment can impact the information received by supply chain leaders, particularly as vaccine developments fluctuate. Data science and analytics are therefore vital factors in addressing challenges across supply chain and logistics and contributing to distribution optimization and vaccination waste minimization.

Supply Chain and Logistics Challenges

The majority of COVID-19 vaccinations in development require two doses, meaning there’s a need for approximately 15 billion global doses. As complex, specialized vaccine distribution and logistics networks arise, so do corresponding supply chain challenges:

  • Raw material demand: Scaling scarce, in-demand raw materials, like surgical-grade sand needed for vaccine vials, has led to a multi-dose distribution model and a missed vaccine production target in 2020. 
  • Temperature restrictions: For example, Pfizer’s vaccine needs to maintain a -70° Celsius temperature that demands custom, dry ice filled containers or freezers which can potentially strain cargo capacity. 
  • Unit requirements: Minimum vaccine unit order shipment requirements that may demand flexible dispensing-site models.
  • Vaccine shelf life: Vaccines must be distributed within 20 days of being received and requires replenishment of dry ice, meaning providers may need to source with local contractors for temporary storage.
  • Components: Supportive components to dispense the shots, like syringes, glass vials, gloves, and alcohol wipes, are still facing a demand/supply disparity in certain areas. 
  • Transportation: The vaccine needs to be safely and securely transported and delivered to numerous locations, and logistics must be managed for everything from local and national deliveries to increased seaport and airport traffic.   
  • Vaccine monitoring: The vaccine needs to be constantly monitored throughout its lifecycle to maintain its integrity, temperature stability, and help streamline product flows.
  • Resource and waste sustainability: Cold storage, used packaging and vials, and other resources must be effectively managed to mitigate potential energy and waste management issues that can negatively impact the environment.  

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Smart Technology, Data Science, and Analytics Aid the Endeavor

Smart technologies, including AI, machine learning (ML), IoT, edge, blockchain, and cloud can aid in this endeavor as supply chain organizations prepare and execute strategies for vaccine distribution. 

Establishing resilient, agile, and adaptive approaches to constant streams of new and diverse data ensures that initiatives like real-time visibility, risk management, demand forecasting, compliance, and partner collaboration can augment and streamline this monumental effort. 

Data challenges must be transformed into solutions that close gaps and connect dots across the web of the supply chain lifecycle from manufacturers, distributors, providers, and consumers. 

Data science and robust analytics are the vehicles for supply chain optimization and logistical distribution optimization as supply chain organizations orchestrate processes to collect, store, transer, process, standardize, and share real-time data. This can help address critical vaccine distribution concerns, such as determining how, where, and what types of data to capture to meet distribution requirements and enable it at the asset, unit, label, and packaging levels.

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A Global Vaccine Distribution Effort Continues

The safe, effective distribution of the COVID-19 vaccination can only be accomplished with optimized, agile, collaborative, and scalable service models and supply chain networks — a feat built on the backbone of data science and analytics. 

Jason Kelley, IBM’s head of blockchain services, describes the logistical and distribution obstacles as the “biggest data puzzle of our lifetime.” But with effective application of data science, advanced analytics, and other emerging technologies, it’s a puzzle that can feasibly be solved as the global effort to curb the pandemic continues. 

In the second part of this series, we will explore how data science can be leveraged in vaccine allocation. Also, check out Simplilearn's Data Science Courses for more information about career opportunities and developments in data science and advanced analytics.

About the Author

Ronald Van LoonRonald Van Loon

Named by Onalytica as the world's #1 influencer in Data and Analytics, Automation, and the Future Economy (Tech), Ronald is the CEO of Intelligent World and one of the top thought leaders in Data Science and Digital Transformation.

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