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Vaccinating America against COVID-19: A logistics challenge

by The 100 Companies
Vaccinating America Against COVID-19: A Logistics Challenge

Operation Warp Speed is a partnership between government and private industry to deliver 300 million courses of COVID-19 vaccine to the American people. The initiative covers development, manufacturing and distribution, involving what U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Sharpsten calls a “whole-of-America approach.” As of Jan. 4, Operation Warp Speed had delivered 16 million doses of vaccine and jurisdictions had administered 4.5 million doses.

Gen. Sharpsten, a civil engineer by training, is deputy director for supply, production and distribution for Warp Speed. He talked to E100 about the intricate logistics and what this has taught him about leadership and communication.

Vaccinating America Against COVID-19: A Logistics Challenge

Maj. Gen. Christopher Sharpsten says Operation Warp Speed is a partnership, bringing together industry, science and government. Photo courtesy of DoD

What role does the Department of Defense play in this vaccine initiative?

First, Operation Warp Speed is a partnership. It brings together the best of industry, science and government. It is a whole-of-America approach, involving the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the vaccine, the delivery companies, the healthcare providers and pharmacies who administer the vaccine, the university labs who continue to contribute to scientific research, and the professional associations who are educating and training their members as needed for their specific role in this complex supply chain.

On the government side, the main players are the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and the Department of Defense.

DoD’s expertise is in coordinating complex operations, in moving supplies across the U.S. and around the world to ensure everything is where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. Our military logistics specialists understand how to assess challenges and develop solutions in nearly every environment, and today, they’re bringing that capability to the critical task of coordinating the supply, production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

How does this effort compare to the logistics around military operations?

There are two main tenets to logistics and supply chain management: understand the risks and plan for them. These are true no matter the operation or environment.

It’s the individual risks and critical factors that will differ between operations. Pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution are drastically different than logistics for combat operations, or for intel operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, or disaster relief operations that involve multiple layers of state and local government coordination.

We had to learn everything about pharmaceuticals and their manufacturing process in about three weeks. I also read everything I could get my hands on about the previous H1N1 influenza pandemics around 1918 and 2009. Once we got a grasp on the environment, we could begin to identify the risks at every stage of the supply chain and make plans to mitigate each risk.

What are the top logistics risks in manufacturing and delivering the COVID-19 vaccine?

As of December 31, 2020, there were six vaccine candidates in the Operation Warp Speed portfolio. Each vaccine has unique requirements, such as temperature control and packaging, that must be considered. One significant risk we’ve addressed to date is the temperature control for the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at -80 degrees Celsius. We’ve been involved in everything from the design and sourcing of the vial holders to securing extra supplies of dry ice and investigating the production capabilities for additional ultra-low temperature freezers.

The Pfizer vaccine comes in trays of 195 five-dose vials. It kind of looks like a pizza box. These trays, or pizza boxes, are packed in a larger shipping box that is filled with dry ice and includes a temperature control monitor and GPS tracker. We can monitor any temperature fluctuations along the way and determine if there is any spoilage.

Each order is shipped Priority Overnight or Next-Day Air through FedEx or UPS, arriving by 10:30 a.m. the next morning. Once a facility receives the Pfizer vaccine, they open the box to verify the delivery. This takes about three minutes, at which point they either re-pack the box with a second supply of dry ice that can be provided or transfer the vaccine trays directly to an ultra-low temperature freezer. Depending on how the trays are stored and how many times they are re-iced, the vaccine is viable for five to 20 days from the day it is first received at the facility.

In addition to the physical movement of the vaccine, this effort includes an education and training component for the healthcare personnel who receive the vaccine deliveries. We want to ensure they understand the correct steps to take for the verification and storage process.

Beyond these temperature control risks, we are also coordinating supplies of vials, trays, needles and syringes, and PPE that is shipped with each order of the vaccine.

Clear communication is a critical component of Operation Warp Speed. Maj. Gen. Christopher Sharpsten leads logistics and is seen here in a recent meeting discussing delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine to Americans serving abroad in the military, foreign service or other capacities for the U.S. government. Photo courtesy of International Stability Operations Association

Is there a single point of failure that you’re most concerned about in this initiative?

People not showing up to get the vaccine. The goal of Operation Warp Speed is to deliver 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the American people by spring 2021. Yet, it’s about more than just the manufacturing and delivery of a vaccine. Our operation won’t be a success unless the American people show up to get the vaccine. This is the step in the chain with the most unknowns.

We are doing our best to educate the public and be transparent about the clinical trials. We’re providing all the information we can to the facilities who are administering the vaccine and to state and local governments. We won’t stop until every American has a vaccine who wants one.

How has this effort influenced your leadership style?

As a West Point Cadet, I was required to learn the Army’s classic 11 principles of leadership. A lot of emphasis is placed on taking responsibility, setting an example, and looking out for the welfare of your people. One principle that is sometimes overlooked is “ensure the task is understood.” My work with Operation Warp Speed has underscored the vital importance of this principle.

Clear communication is paramount. Every organization, every industry has their own language and way of communicating. On Operation Warp Speed, so much of my day is spent making sure everyone is using the same language and that there is a clear understanding of what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and by when.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning the languages of the pharmaceutical industry, academia, and our various government agencies. I never thought I’d be dreaming of ultra-low temperature freezer trucks, vaccine efficacy, or herd immunity, but I’ve heard people say that if you start to dream in a foreign language, it’s a sign of fluency. I just hope I’m an effective translator and communicator among all our stakeholders.

– Melissa Price, The Engineering 100

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