2020 truly is the year of supply chain entering the limelight.

For the first time ever people other than Floridians were introduced to panic-buying fueled supply chain shortages when toilet paper started flying off the shelves. Now we’re facing the music with tight capacity and holiday deliveries.

And 2020 isn’t done with us just yet.

With three vaccines announced recently, a return to normal seems closer than ever. But in the uncanny reality TV series that is 2020, the return to normal has an unlikely celebrity guest star – supply chain – and they’re here to wreak havoc on vaccine distribution.

What we know about the vaccines [as of publication date]

  1. None of them have been given approval for emergency use… yet.
  2. They all have 90% or higher effective rates.
  3. They all use something called mRNA.
  4. Two of them like to be cold… really freaking cold.

Exactly how cold is “really freaking cold”? Moderna’s vaccine needs to be shipped at minus 20 degrees Celsius and Pfizer’s requires a chilling minus 75 degrees Celsius (that’s minus 94 Fahrenheit for us Americans). That’s not something the current cold chain is equipped to do at scale. This isn’t to say that all is lost. Moderna claims shelf stability for 30 days at a mere 41 degrees which is totally feasible for the current cold chain. But, this would mean most vaccines would be delivered just before being administered. Not only is this a disaster for quality assurance, but according to Freightwaves 75% of current Pharma supply chain constituents are already at capacity.

But what about newcomer AstraZeneca? They report shelf stability for 6 months at 2-8 degrees Celsius, or 36-46 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures the current pharma cold chain is equipped to handle at scale. As for their efficacy, the study was split into different dosage groups. The first, who received a half dose and then a full dose at least 1 month later was found to be 90% effective. The second, who received full doses at least a month apart achieved 62% efficacy, putting the average effective rate of Moderna’s vaccine at 70%.

So what about supply chain?

As we mentioned before, the current cold chain is not equipped to sustain temperatures of -75 degree Celsius at large scale. With reefer capacity already tapped plans to distribute vaccines before the end of 2020 are sure to put increased stress on cold supply chains. Moderna’s vaccine will be distributed as part of Operation Warp Speed, which should help in securing transport. It may sound ridiculous, but Pfizer is planning to ship vaccines via carriers like UPS and FedEx in thermal boxes packed with dry ice.

New complications arise when you consider that each vaccine must be administered twice – once initially and again after 30 days. Let’s suppose Pfizer can’t ship at minus 75 Celsius. If the ice packing strategy works, that would mean first doses need to arrive within one to two days to ensure quality. The margins are slightly wider for Moderna’s vaccine which can live in a refrigerator for 30 days, but it would be hard to inoculate patients with vaccines from the same shipment due to a minimum 30 day period between doses. While AstraZeneca touts long shelf stability there is still a lot about their vaccine that remains unknown. With capacity already at an all-time high, the supply chain is again going to face strain. Having three viable vaccines in such a short time is an incredible scientific feat. Let’s hope equally brilliant minds and major resources were dedicated to the supply chain side of this equation.